How to Make Youth Sports Better
I have been involved in youth sports nearly my entire life. I started playing recreational sports just like any pre-kinder does. T-ball, hoops, flag football, you name it I was playing. As I got older and became more involved, I entered the next phase of youth sports, travel ball. Eventually, I went to receive letters in 4 sports, receive regional awards, and play JUCO baseball.
After one summer at a JUCO, I stopped playing. Honestly, I was burned out and did not want to play anymore. Sports had consumed my life and I was ready for my next chapter.
Fast-forward I now have 3 children playing youth sports. One plays for a very good soccer club and is getting some solid training. The others are still coming up in through the ranks and I see my son (3rd grade) wanting to do more and needs more. He is ready to make the step to more competition, but not ready to commit to one sport.
Through all this I have been their coach, I have been their mentor, I have been their supporter, and I have been anything and everything I can to keep them playing because youth sports have become very important to them.
I am at crossroads now in our journey as I look for more development leagues for my son. He does not want to follow his sister and play club soccer, but he does want to dive deeper into the game of basketball. He needs a youth basketball development league with a strict development schedule, but limited tournaments and lower cost. He wants to develop his skills and abilities, but not be tied to one sport all year round.
I have also talked to many parents through the years that want more but are not ready for the time commitment and financial commitment of travel or club ball. They know their player is good and needs more work, but are not ready to pull the trigger because of the negatives in travel ball.
I have also had numerous conversations with ex-college athletes that keep their kids away from the travel ball culture because they did it and burned them out, myself included.
So, as I put the words down on paper, I know there is a better way to help develop young athletes. I am also building a small development league with these concepts to evolve youth sports in mind.
4 Pillars to Evolve Youth Sports – How to Make Youth Sports Better
It is my opinion that youth sports must be focused on the development of each player (Future Champion). As parents and coaches, we need to remind ourselves that you do not win the Larry O’Brien trophy in youth sports.
Over the years we have placed unneeded pressure on our kids to perform to win, not perform to get better. We focus on the results of the match, not the improvement from season to season. We focus on getting the invite to the next tournament, not the new skill they learned. We define status by the team we play for in 6th grade, not the person the athlete becomes.
That being said, here are the 4 pillars I believe are needed to make youth sports better. Remember the goal is to build Future Champions, not win that meaningless tournament in the middle of summer.
Team Practice – Develop Team Concepts
2 years ago, I started coaching competitive soccer. It was still through a recreational soccer league, but I thought it was going to be more “real” soccer and the players would know the basics of the game. I was wrong.
We get to the first game, and we are called offsides multiple times. I made a horrible assumption that the players would understand this concept, so in the one practice before our first game, we did not go over it. Never again will I enter a match with the players not knowing the rules of the game.
We continue to play our first match and there were still the same issues that all the other leagues had. The teams did not know how to do a proper throw-in. They did not know what a corner kick was. They did not know to spread the field. The fundamentals of the game were not being taught.
The point was that the kids did not know how to play the game. Simple concepts that should be taught were not taught. So, just like an entry-level recreational league, the following week we started from the beginning. The competitive league was full of athletes, not soccer players. The team concepts still needed massive amounts of work.
Here is the issue that I have. When I get the players for one hour per week, we are very limited in what we can teach. We typically work on some dribbling, shooting, and running a team concept or two. There is not enough time to go over everything.
To get better at any sport, you need to know how to play your game. We need to know how to play as a team. There are many little things that players needed to know to get better. This means you need to spend time on running plays on the court, backing up the throw to 1st on the diamond, or conducting a corner on the pitch.
Your team training session is for this type of work. You can spend your hour doing these things, building a team that plays together, and runs plays that suit the roster.
Camp-Style Individual Development
Growing up, I attended a ton of camps. These camps are where I learned to hit a baseball, shoot a basketball, run with proper form, and so many other skills needed to succeed. The targeted training and repetition helped me get better. The one-on-one coaching helped my mechanics on just about everything.
Traditional youth sports and if I am being honest most travel/club teams do not focus on these skills because of the lack of time in their one hour per week. However, this is where players become Future Champions. This is how kids get better.
These are available, but they are super costly. Looking at a basketball camp for my son over the summer, it was $900 for the week. Well, if my daughter wanted to go too, well you can do the math. Again, the kid is a 3rd grader, not in the NBA G-League.
I understand there are many camps that are much more affordable, but they add up. My concern with camps is that the athlete goes for a week and never gets the proper training again. Camps are great, but they need to be a constant part of the development process.
If you are running a league, a club, or a team you need to have optional camp-style training as part of your development program. If you need to charge a little more to rent space, make it happen. This is how your players will get better.
Longer Development Seasons
This summer I coached my son’s basketball team. We had a fantastic season, but we only had 6 weeks and one of those weeks was the 4th of July. Once we started getting things together, the summer was over, and the boys went to other teams or sports. As fast as the season started, the season was over.
I am a believer that your seasons should be longer. 6-8 weeks is not enough time to really make a difference, learn to work as a team, and develop the comradery youth sports provide. On top of the short season, many recreational seasons have 4-weeks between each season giving a huge gap between playing and development time.
There is a reason that so many athletes choose to play club/travel, it is because it is year-round. There is no large break every few months. Longer seasons built around developing athletes are needed.
Develop The Entire Athlete
To become a Future Champion, you need to build more than a sweet jumper. You need to become a better athlete. This means you need to work on plyometrics, conditioning, how to get stronger, how to eat better, and the list goes on.
My superpower in sports was speed. I would outrun pretty much anyone outside of the track team. I worked on running form starting in 5th grade with my track coach grandfather. Form, stride, and all the lateral movements that go with it. I learned to become a better athlete, not just a baseball player.
My point is, that it is not enough to just develop the skills needed to play one game, you need to develop the skills needed to become a better athlete.
Why Youth Sports Do Not Develop Athletes
Before we start to bash youth sports, I want to make sure you know that I believe most leagues are doing their best. These leagues are getting kids involved and excited about playing sports and this is mission number one.
I am more talking about those kids that want more, want to become better, and want to play every day.
Here are a few reasons that I believe traditional youth sports do not develop youth athletes.
If there is one thing that kills a good league, it is trying to find facilities to use. Even when you find these facilities, they can be expensive to rent.
Every year I coach a team, I get a few phone calls and text messages asking if I can get their kid on a team. The problem is the leagues that we play at do not have the space. They can only let so many athletes play. Limited facilities do not allow for the above-mentioned youth sports development methodology.
When these facilities are limited, adding a second practice time or optional camp-style training session is impossible.
“Real Coaches” Are Hard to Find
Before I totally put my foot in my mouth, I want to give credit where credit is due. Dads and Moms that coach their kid’s teams, you are the backbone of youth sports. Without you, there are no youth sports. Thank you for all you do.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about the issue and the solution.
Leagues, clubs, and teams should have a good trainer that is a shared resource. Soccer clubs are starting to do this, and this is why we chose the club we play at. They have a pro-level trainer that rotates between the age levels and teams. Each week there is work with a pro-level trainer to really ensure that the athletes are developing their skills.
Second, leagues should have a weekly workout for every coach. You can call it a playbook, but something to guide these volunteers through the year. This is going to give more structure to practice and get more out of every session. Your curriculum should be the same, by doing this you take the focus off the games and place the focus on the development of the players. It also helps coaches work together or fill in for each other if they need to miss their training session.
Youth Sports is a Profit Center
Unfortunately, there is money to be made in youth sports. Tournament fees in soccer range from $600 per team to $2000 per team. Gate fees are $5 -$15 per person, just to watch. The amount of money that is in youth sports is a bit ridiculous.
The money to be made is in individual coaching, camps, tournaments, merch, equipment, and the list goes on. In my opinion, some of these items do not make you better, but they are needed to build a youth sports program.
I hate the stories that continue to come up that clubs and teams continue to ask for money from parents with really no plan in place. There are stories out there that a team is formed, and the coach then disappears or never calls the team, or never shows up to practice.
Evolve Youth Sports – Let’s Start Making Youth Sports Better
It is my opinion that youth sports are broken. It is my opinion that there is a better way to build and maintain youth sports programs. However, to evolve youth sports and truly make youth sports better there has to be a different way. We must put focus on the development of each youth athlete.
I am going to leave you with this, I am very worried about my kids. I know they love to play, they love to compete, and they love to be part of the team. I do worry that as they get older, they will not love the sport anymore. I worry they will burn out. They will stop playing, I hope that is not the case, but it is a worry of mine.
I believe there is a way to do both. Develop your skills and still love the game. Play the game for fun, not because you need to be invited to the next tournament.
Let’s change the way we look at youth sports, together.