Sports

Youth sports confer lifelong benefits for players | Column

If peewee athletes remind you of Labrador retrievers at KVI Beach (get the ball, get the ball, get the ball…) older children seem more like big-cat cubs, learning to wait for, or create, an opening to pounce.

While pint-size athletes develop fundamental skills in movement and sense on the fields, older athletes (ages 9 to 12) begin to incorporate multifaceted strategies and move towards attaining greater physical skills.

Although kids at this level start to train with increasingly formal methods, youth sports programs still need to stress broad-based skills and inclusion in a wide range of sports.

Coaches and parents working with this age group need to place youth development ahead of winning and take a long-term approach to encouraging athletic potential, building progressively to more advanced instruction as young athletes move to higher levels.

The Long-Term Athletic Development approach (LTAD), developed by sport scientist Dr. Istvan Balyi, builds progressively over the years, moving towards more complicated instruction as kids grow. The LTAD model seeks to reconcile the pace of athletic training with kids’ natural progression. Canadian Sport for Life has an informative Web site on the LTAD model (visit www.canadiansportforlife.ca/).

Key LTAD recommendations for this age group include teaching basic sports skills (rather than basic movement skills), having children participate in a wide range of sports and positions, placing emphasis on competition rather than winning (practice 60 to 70 percent; actual competition 30 to 40 percent of the time), and training for general conditioning (flexibility, endurance, strength and movement).

Kids’ varying degrees of physical and emotional maturity can challenge coaches and parents. This model teaches youth athletics in phases, instructing to children’s developmental stages.

Children striving for elite status also need time to develop (although they require special attention and will train differently). Current thought maintains that it takes 8 to 12 years of training to reach elite levels, called the “10-year or 10,000 hour rule.” Talent manifests itself gradually and needs cultivation and opportunity over time.

Some tenets from peewee leagues also apply to older kids, including:

• Don’t berate when criticizing a child. “Kids hate that, and often go against whatever the screaming is about,” said Vashon Island high-school wrestling coach Per-Lars Blomgren. Little “kids are more fragile and older kids resent being screamed at.” (A coach will have to raise his or her voice to be heard when directing play, or to keep play safe, however; this is part of tactical game management.)

• Stay positive in your mannerisms and critiques. Concentrate on what you want (and use careful measures of what you don’t want).

• Keep comments and instructions brief — let kids play, because kids learn by playing.

• Teach the game and don’t keep scores.

• Give all kids equal playing time to keep them involved and motivated.

• Teach them to love the games and sports for the fun of it. “Kids vote with their feet,” said Vashon Island soccer coach Greg Martin — if the kids come back, you know the coach did a good job.

Coaches and parents determine whether the youth-sports experience remains positive. Since a large percentage of kids start dropping out of sports around adolescence (citing that sports stopped being fun), coaches and parents must maintain an affirmative experience for young athletes to keep them engaged through young adulthood.

Developmental molecular biologist John Medina wrote in his 2008 book “Brain Rules” that scientists now know that exercise boosts brain power, long-term memory, reasoning, attention and problem-solving tasks.

A tidbit for older readers: Research also shows that regular exercise cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s by 60 percent.

Sports provide fundamental building blocks in a child’s education and help keep kids physically fit. Kids involved in sports maintain stronger connections to their schools, peers and community.

Sports keep kids occupied while building skills that extend beyond fields and courts. They learn healthy habits, sportsmanship and goal-setting. Students involved in sports maintain higher grades, commit less crime, use fewer drugs and have fewer teen pregnancies.

Coaches, parents and fans with the right priorities help children become capable athletes and good kids. Communities must champion recreational as well as elite leagues and include more players (rather than cutting or benching athletes).

Players vary in motivation and grow and reach puberty at different rates. In order to give kids the chance to progress in competitive sports, programs must enable kids to play and develop.

Even if a child never reaches elite status, the benefits that sports confer will benefit him or her throughout their lives.

— Marie Py is a soccer mom.

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