Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Youth Sports: How Far Can Natural Ability Take a Young Athlete

Nic at age 2
There are some kids who are born with natural athletic ability. They seem to come out of the womb with superior hand eye coordination. They can run, catch, throw and kick before other kids can even walk steadily. At 4 or 5, they play up on teams with kids one or two years older just to find compatible players.

Will these young athletes be high school standouts, college scholarship studs or professional phenoms?

CC at 6, played
with 8 and 9 year olds
The answer. Who knows? Each kid develops at their own pace. Some kids develop coordination early and dominate in sports but then plateau. Others start off awkwardly but turn into good athletes. Some kids grow early others are late bloomers. All kids are born with confidence, but some lose it. Some kids love for sports grows, others lose interest. 

Yes success in sports requires natural ability, but passion for the sport and a strong work ethic are equally essential. A kid will not likely succeed at their chosen sport long term if he or she does not have all three qualities.

What happens to a young athlete who is born with natural ability, develops a love for the sport, but has no work ethic?

It can be a real blessing when things come so naturally to an athlete at really young age. These kids use their natural ability to achieve early success. Success builds their confidence and their love for the game. They love the game because success and its associated praise from parents and coaches comes so easily. This passion and natural ability will likely motivate the young athlete to tryout for a more competitive team.

This is when the naturally gifted player may come to the realization that they aren't so special anymore. It may be the first time that they are surrounded by other equally gifted players or perhaps better players. Their confidence will be tested for the first time. They might lose their grip on a favorite position. The praise that fueled them before doesn't come as frequently. They might start losing playing time. Self-doubt creeps in and suddenly they start thinking instead of reacting instinctively. This is when mistakes happen. They had never failed before so they do not know how to overcome adversity. Their passion for the game wanes. They never had to work hard to be good before, so they never developed a work ethic. They start to "not try" because they would rather be viewed as a kid who's not trying hard instead of a kid who is trying hard and failing. Then they quit.

What happens to a young athlete who has natural ability and a work ethic, but no passion for the sport?

Some kids who were born with athletic ability, show up to every practice, work hard and have a desire to improve, but they do not really love the game. Perhaps they stick with it because they are so good at it. Perhaps they stick with it because they are being forced to play by parents who are living vicariously
through their kids. If the passion is not there these kids will eventually quit the sport. Distractions and other priorities, like girl / boy friends, jobs, school or just the desire for free time, will eventually take precedence and derail the career of an athlete who lacks passion for their chosen sport.

What happens to the young athlete who has natural ability, a strong work ethic and passion for the sport?

Some kids are born with talent and use their innate abilities to achieve early athletic success. Success builds confidence and a love for the game emerges. This passion and natural ability motivates the young athlete to seek higher levels of competition. At the higher level, they will find kids who are better than them. The kid who was born with a natural ability and passion is tested, but they will see that as a challenge. They will then dig deeper than they ever had to before to improve. Equally talented players will inspire them and help this athlete reach higher and higher levels of success.

The Main Point

First of all, most kids who have all the essential elements for athletic success will still fall short of college scholarships or signing bonuses. The chances of advancing to college level and pro sports is less than 5% and 2 % respectively. So proper perspective is needed.

My perspective is that sports teach live lessons that will provide life long benefits for my kids. Sports are teaching my kids the following

  • How to win
  • How to overcome adversity
  • How to work as a team
  • How to respect a boss
  • How hard work leads to success
  • How to perform under pressure
  • How to compete for the position you want
  • How to prepare for success
  • How to concentrate

My kids were born with lots of athletic ability compared to most kids. My two kids have a relentless passion for sports and deep desire to practice, compete and improve. They really do have all the qualities needed for success.

Still, as my kids move up to higher and higher competitive levels, they are finding kids who have much more talent. My son has adjusted his expectations of playing in college but continues to play baseball with passion. I told him that it is ok to be realistic, but I also told him to be patient. He is currently comparing himself to kids who have gone through puberty and are fully grown. He has not yet.

Last month, my daughter went to the AAU Division 1 basketball tournament and realized that she needs to work much harder to reach her goal of playing for the UCONN. She works on her game every day.

My kids may or may not have what it takes to be high school standouts, college scholarship studs or professional phenoms. It all needs to play out still, regardless they are learning important life lessons along the way.

BTW - there are a few other essential elements for success. 1) An opportunity, 2) Good instruction / coaching, 3) A supportive environment, 4) durability, the ability to remain injury free and 5) luck - being seen at the right time by the right people.

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