• Brian T. Gearity, PhD

3 Tips to Develop Talent in Young Athletes

Things you hear children say, “I want to be a professional athlete.” Things you don’t

hear children say, “I want to be a professor.” As a child, I had dreams of making it to the NFL,

but genetics and my environment had other plans, so I settled on becoming a professor. Ask me

as a boy or teenager what my favorite class was—physical education. Best part of the school

day—football practice or after school weightlifting. Let’s fast forward about 20 years and I’ve

coached youth to professional athletes mostly as a strength and conditioning coach, but also

speed coach, and sport coach for tackle and flag football, soccer, and t-ball. Now entering my 9th year as a professor and 4th at the University of Denver, where I direct a Masters of Arts degree in Sport Coaching, my wife and I are the proud parents of 3 kids: Lorelei (10), Liam (9), and Lincoln (6).


So, what does the science of talent development say and how do we approach

developing the sporting talents of our 3 kids? In this article, I’ll provide 3 tips backed by

research for developing talent in young people and to consider yourself if you have kids.


Tip number one—values and expectations.

Why do we even wants kids to participate in sport and other physical activities? What

we know from research and listening to the voices of young people is that they participate in

sport because it’s fun, to learn new skills, and engage in relationships with their peers. Children,

like adults, stop participating in sport because it’s no longer fun and there’s too much pressure

or it makes them feel icky. You’re probably not going to be able to guarantee your child

becomes a professional athlete or Olympian, so be realistic and wise by providing an environment that does encourage them to have fun in sports while developing a wide-range of

physical, mental, and emotional skills. More education, less professionalization of youth sports.

Parents who have moderate to high expectations of their child’s success tend to have

kids that stick to sports longer and report greater satisfaction compared to the parents who are

have unrealistically high, or low, expectations. Adopting a permissive (loving, but low

expectations) or authoritarian (overbearing disciplinarian) parenting style tends to lead to

lesser outcomes than an autonomy-supportive style (high but realistic, encouragement,

growth).


I read an interesting study a few years ago that also showed parents who paid more

for youth sport expected better results—a dangerous relationship as those sorts of demands

lead to excessive pressure on kids and coaches. Paradoxically, you’re better off gently guiding

young people through encouragement, opportunities to participate in play and structured

sport. In general, a Goldilocks or “just right” approach that is neither too laissez faire or

stringent works best.


Last item on values and expectations. There’s a concept in psychology called “achievement by proxy.” It’s the scientific term for living vicariously through your kids. Now is a

good enough time as any to tell the reader that my son Liam is a competitive gymnast, and he’s

really good. Exaggeration? Not so much. He could ride a 2-wheel bike and swim before age 4,

taught himself how to skateboard by 5, he’s a 3x Colorado state gymnastic champion, and last

year we took him snowboarding for the first time and by trip number 3 he was skiing double

black diamonds at Breck. I think about him and wonder, “Am I living my unfulfilled dreams

through Liam, or my other kids? And how might these thoughts influence my actions?” we may

very well be encouraging him because we perceive him to be physically gifted (born that way), but we’re aware of this and provide encouragement to all our children. When my daughter,

Lorelei, sustained an unnecessary muscle strain 2 years ago we pulled her from gymnastics. It

seemed to us not worth risking further injury and her mental health, and it was a good time for

her to try other sports. In reality, my wife and I talked, and I had to do a bit of coaxing that we

were making a good decision. So, while Liam competes in gymnastics, in the past 2 years Lorelei

has moved on and tried swimming, track, and lacrosse, which brings us to tip number two.


Tip number two—multiple sports and activities.

If you want your child or young person to be able to participate in a range of different sports

and set them up for long-term abilities, then they’re probably better off sampling a variety of

sports and activities (like play and games). While Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize the idea

of deliberate practice (the theory about 10,000 hours to expertise), the science on this didn’t

really say that if anybody practices 10,000 hours they’ll become an expert. Put simply, merely

10,000 hours of focused practice doesn’t not lead to athletic expertise. Practice is needed to

develop skills, but it’s far from a magical elixir. What we are pretty sure about is that young

people who engage in multiple sports and activities develop the confidence and competence to

perform numerous skills, which sets them up for future success, especially popular American

team sports like football, baseball, basketball, and soccer.


There are some sports, like gymnastics and figure skating, where the best of the best

athletes tend to peak at a rather early age (between 16-early 20s), and these are what we call

early specialization sports. These are the exceptions, not the norm. Another reason to try

sampling is that research shows a relationship between sport sampling and fewer injuries. The

hypothesis is that moving your body differently increases skill development and reduces stress

built up from too many of the same movements.


How do we this with our kids? Even with Liam, the specialized gymnast, he’s already

participated in hip hop dance, t-ball, soccer, flag football, lacrosse, snowboarding, trips to the

skate park, and when we lived down South we would head to the neighborhood pool to play for

a couple hours a few times per week for months. When he’s not at gymnastics practice, we

encourage him to play outside or down at the park. Lorelei too has tried hip hop dance and

contemporary, gymnastics, soccer, lacrosse, and swimming. Lincoln, the youngest, in addition

to being great at playing superheroes (which involves a lot of movement skills!), tried a few

recreational gymnastics courses, and regularly plays soccer, lacrosse, and recently Taekwondo

(part of his superhero role playing). We’ve lived in 3 states in the past 10 years, but our garage

has always looked like a physical education storage room. Instead of having an indoor gaming

system, we’ve got bikes, basketballs, Frisbees, bats, baseballs, badminton, street hockey,

orange cones, kettlebells—Colorado has great weather, so get outside and play! Providing

opportunities and support in the form of encouragement and resources are often determined

by researchers to enhance skill development.


Tip number three—modeling movement and self-care.

Parents, and other adults like coaches, can do wonders for themselves and young people by

modelling movement and self-care. What this means is that we should model what we often

know we should—move a little more, eat a little less junk food or alcohol. Unquestionably,

nutrition influences performance, and nobody would dare fuel an elite athlete with a cupboard

full of processed foods or easy, greasy burgers or fried chicken. Every now and then a treat is nice, but not all day every day. Literally as I write this blog, I reminded that the post lacrosse

game snack for Lincoln’s team was a small sports drink and some cheesy cracker

thing—basically nothing of good nutritional value and just a couple hundred calories of sugar.

Alternatives? Cut up fruit and vegetables, almonds and other legumes and nuts, granola, and a

bottle of water.


To round out self-care, let’s get in some exercise, sleep, and develop coping strategies to

manage stress or eliminate too many stressors to begin with if you can. My wife, Cayla, is a

nurse practitioner, and a former strength and conditioning coach like me. We exercise regularly

and play with the kids when we can. I didn’t grow up playing lacrosse, but I’ve given it a shot

this past year and for now I can keep up. We cook most of our food at home and pack a lot of

lunches and healthy snacks for us and the kids. Okay, quick true story. When we had Liam’s

kindergarten teacher meeting years ago the teacher said to us, “I was drinking a soda the other

day and Liam mentioned that it wasn’t good for me. He’s so cute, and right.” We know that

children learn from watching others around them and while we do indulge in Cayla’s amazing

homemade chocolate chip cookies every now and then, we educate and try to practice what we

preach. It’s hard, and throw in fulltime jobs and 3 kids, and we get run down too. So,

developing coping skills and resiliency, just like we’d want from our athletes, is something we

work on.


In addition to the 3 tips provided, here’s a few final related points to help your journey.

 Who is benefitting from this? How can I facilitate, support, and guide? Have I checked in on

my own well-being and motives for doing this?


 When in doubt: play, enjoy, create, explore, get outside. These are often life-fulfilling

activities. Specializing and the ability to narrowly focus are unique and challenging skills that

come with a need for qualified resources like great sport coaches, physicians, athletic

trainers, and sport psychologists.


 How can you engage in “aging well”? Elite sport performance is not synonymous with

health, quite the contrary in fact. Set the foundation for yourself and young people to

flourish by engaging in healthy, not obsessive or debilitating, behaviors.

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