Jane Brody of The New York Times isn’t breaking much new ground in summing up the physical — and psychological — costs of pushing young athletes too hard, too soon and too often.
But as I read this piece my mind drifted back to an ouststanding series written by William Houston, then of the Toronto Globe and Mail, following the Canadian Olympic hockey team’s meltdown at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
(You might recall how some of the American players marked their unremarkable play in that event by trashing their rooms at the Olympic Village. This was not a good time for North American hockey.)
Houston examined how Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic were producing more skilled hockey players than Canada. What was most revealing to me was how the European model of nurturing young athletes — with a focus on skill development over muscle — planted these seeds precisely by not stressing early success.
Instead, the emphasis is placed on technique and process. Games are limited and are played on smaller surfaces and with shorter time periods.
By contrast, the North American way of youth athlete development is to throw the kids on the field, court, track and ice or in the pool and teach them how to compete, above all:
“An 11-year-old child will play 30 games in a season in Europe and participate in at least three times as many practices. In the high-octane environment of elite minor hockey in Canada, an 11-year-old might play 140 games in leagues and tournaments. Canada’s system does produce, for the most part, the best goaltenders in the world because they face shots that count in so many games.”
Instead of immersing children in the joys of process — where good habits and an appreciation for a sport are born — the end-game is paramount. The pursuit of skill and excellence for their own sake are regarded as outdated and impractical.
I don’t have children, but I’ve spent much of my sports journalism career writing about young athletes — usually at the college level — and admit I haven’t spent much time asking them whether they’re having any fun.
As these teenagers can tell you, they do a very good job of shielding their emotions from the people who are cajoling and watching them the most:
(video h/t Clarence Gaines)