Youth Sports: The Sampling Period

Note: Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness in May 2010.

Childhood has moved from a time of exploration to a time of preparation, and youth sports epitomize that transition. Playing sports has changed to training for a sport for even young children. Mike Boyle, a well-known strength & conditioning coach in Massachusetts, recently wrote about a question that he received from a parent-coach of a nine-year-old hockey team looking to put together a summer plan. Boyle’s first suggestion was to play another sport.

Young athletes progress through three general stages in their athletic careers: Sampling (6 -12-years-old), Specializing (13-15) and Investment (16+). The sampling period is a time to play multiple sports and develop a wide base of athletic skills before choosing a sport to pursue. The specializing period is a transition between the more playful sampling period and the more intense investment period. The young athlete participates in fewer sports during this period, but practices and plays more often in his or her chosen sports. The investment period is when the athlete hones his or her skills for competitive play and trains to be a hockey player, soccer player or basketball player.

As more attention focuses on the practice hours required to reach an expert level, more parents and coaches skip the sampling stage and move directly to specializing and investment in an effort to speed the developmental process. However, rushing the process does not lead to more elite players. The sampling period is not a waste of time or easily ignored. This playful period plays an important role in an athlete’s development, regardless of his or her ultimate sport of choice.

The sampling period is a time to play, not train. As players engage in different sports, they develop different athletic qualities and add to their athletic toolbox. Rather than train these qualities in drills and training, playing multiple sports makes the athletic development more fun and gives the young athlete a chance to choose his desired sport from among several options.

Boyle suggested that youth hockey players play lacrosse because of the tactical similarities between the two games. All invasion sports (lacrosse, basketball, soccer, hockey, water polo, etc) use the same basic tactics in terms of spacing, movement and passing. Rather than spend the spring and summer in ice rinks playing more games and practicing more hockey-specific skills, lacrosse enhances the players’ development by broadening their athletic skills. Rather than burning out on year-round hockey, players continue their development by learning new skills and training in a different sport.

Boyle’s second suggestion is to skip all but one week of summer hockey camp and to pick one with the largest number of friends attending. Summer sports camps are more social than developmental. As Boyle says, “You won’t get better in a week anyway.” Sports camps are effective if they motivate players to work hard after they leave the camp and if they teach things in a way that players can use what they learned on their own. However, learning and improvement do not occur during the time frame of the camp. The camp’s developmental impact occurs long after the camp ends. Therefore, as Boyle suggests, attend a summer camp for fun and to play with friends.

Boyle’s third suggestion is to cancel any summer leagues. The off-season is a time for training, not competing, and nine-years-old is too young to concentrate on training for a late specialization sport like hockey, basketball, soccer or baseball. Since nine-year-olds do not need to train for their chosen sport, they should use this time for more sampling, not specializing. Rather than play in a hockey league, play lacrosse. Rather than play year-round baseball, join a swim team. Rather than play year-round basketball, take martial arts classes. Do something new. Provide experiences that enable the young athlete to develop broader and better athletic skills.

Older athletes in the specializing and investment periods use the off-season to train their skills and prepare for the next season. They add new moves and skills to their repertoire and improve their strength, fitness, flexibility and quickness. Nine-year-olds do not need to train for youth sports. They need to play.

Boyle’s other suggestions are to engage in more family activities like bike riding and fishing. Plenty of families base their schedules around their children’s youth sports schedules and ignore family activities. Missing one tournament or skipping a practice is not going to set back your son’s or daughter’s athletic career, regardless of how disappointed the coach may be that a player would skip a game or practice. Holidays have become a time for youth sports tournaments, which dominate nearly every weekend as well. At some point, these tournaments have diminishing returns and a weekend spent bicycling at the beach or snowboarding in the mountains is more valuable.

Rather than heeding Boyle’s advice and spending an athlete’s early years developing varied athletic skills, parents and coaches encourage year-round training. Rather than allow for a period of play, youth sports have turned into a time for training.

I recently spoke to a Boys & Girls Club about its middle school basketball program, as the athletic director was hiring coaches for its spring season. In the meeting, he spoke about “competition,” “cutting players” and “winning.” I left the meeting feeling that something was wrong. If middle school sports at a Boys & Girls Club are that cutthroat, where can a recreational player play for fun? I expected an environment of inclusion and development, not a results-oriented, exclusionary team. He spoke effusively of a player who played in the club as an 8th grader and earned a Division I scholarship, and he said that was the goal. Is the B&GC’s mission really to produce Division I athletes? What happened to fun? What happened to teaching life lessons like discipline, responsibility, work ethic, accountability and more?

A local youth organization is hosting an exposure weekend for young basketball players as young as 4th grade to determine invitations for summer national all-american camps. Do young athletes need an all-american camp? Do they need a national ranking? I train a player who was an All-Freshmen pick in his conference this year, and he was never ranked in the top 500 players in his class during high school. There is no benefit to being a nationally ranked player as a 4th grader, except the neighborhood bragging rights. Have we reached the point where youth sports participation is measured entirely by one’s rank or ultimate success in the sport rather than the fun that one has and the friends that one makes while playing the sport?

Brian McCormick is the Director of Coaching for the Playmakers Basketball Development League and Performance Director of Train for Hoops.

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