top of page

Every couple of months, a parent will either email me an article about a young athlete dying (like this WashingtonPost article) or chat with me about practices being too difficult for their child.

Parents are concern about how to handle their children complaining about rigorous training and what should the messaging be to young athletes about how hard to train.

My typical response often goes like this….

It's always unfortunate when a child dies and I extend my condolences to the family.

Please note that in the majority of cases when an athlete dies after a workout or game it is due to an underlying health issue that was dormant until that moment (i.e. A hole in the heart, a tumor in the lungs, etc). Here’s an article from the Mayo Clinic that discusses the issue Mayo Clinic article

To address the general concerns about young athletes pushing through tough or uncomfortable training. The process of getting better (stronger, faster, building longer endurance, mastering a skill, etc) will require young athletes to push through their current level of comfort.

This doesn't mean that these young players should be in constant pain before, during and after the training session. If they are in constant pain, they should see a physician immediately.

Make sure they get a medical physical and specifically ask them to check for any cardiac or neurological abnormalities. A history of abnormalities in family members could also be an indicator of potential abnormalities. The findings from the medical examinations should help inform all parties involved about the next steps for the young athlete.

If no abnormalities are found from the medical exams and testing, then the issue could be developing mental toughness in the young athlete. This is not as easy as it seems. It requires some tough love from parents. This also requires that the young athlete understands that in the process of getting better they will have to push themselves in ways that they haven’t done in the past.

This last piece is extremely important, regardless of the sport, all sports should have a balance training session mix where some sessions are easy and some sessions are intense. Young athletes should be provided ample opportunities to rest during and in between practice sessions.

Kids running on a track
Kids training

The way that I initially learned and fell in love with football was not from a great coach or following a fancy training program. I fell in love with football the same way that kids in every country outside the USA fell in love with the game, through pickup soccer.

Visit any of the countries that regularly produce the best soccer players in the world and you will notice that there are pickup games everywhere. Literally, everywhere. The youngest kids are playing on the streets and playgrounds. The young men and adults are playing on “fields” in every neighborhood. Fields is in quotation because what is consider a field in most places would not be considered a field in the USA.

Young ballers having fun

Pickups games are where the youngest players develop their love, creativity and passion for the game. Young players start learning the rules and tactics of the game without realizing that they are learning. It’s through pickups that truly talented players prove their worth and are first noticed by the community.

If you are a parent or coach with kids that are interested in the game, one of the best gifts you can give them is to offer them the opportunity to regularly participate in pickups.

Find pickup games going on in your area and take your kids.

If you can’t find pickups near you, you can ask your coach to organize a pickup. Coaches that are truly about player development, understands the importance of pickup and they will gladly invite players, find space and set up the small fields. It’s important that this coach does not try to coach during pickup. The coach should just organize and enjoy the game play.

Another option is for you to organize the pickup. Keep it simple and informal, invite a few of child teammates to play pickup in a park area near you. Once at the park, help setup the field and let kids know that it’s their time to play. Let them know that they will pick teams and regulate each other.

Get out of there way and let them play. While they are playing, it’s important to not interfere in their game in any way. Unless, someone gets seriously injured or an egregious act is being committed by one of the kids, you should stay away. Let them play and figure out how to play, how to solve disagreements, what moves works and which moves need more practice.

Youth pickup is a cornerstone in youth soccer development. We can all do our part to ensure that more kids begin their development by playing pickups and letting their imagination for the game run wild.

There’s a recently published ESPN article These kids are ticking time bombs that is making the rounds and has added more fuel to the anti-youth sports specialization argument.

The article is focused on youth basketball, but the arguments are used against youth sport specialization in general.

The core of the argument against youth sports specialization is two-fold. The first point is that there is little evidence to suggest that early specialization leads to the child becoming a professional athlete and becoming great in their sport. The second point is that the early specialization leads to constant wear and tear of these young bodies that leads to numerous injuries in their youth and as they enter adulthood.

Ok, let me clear this up for everyone. The problem is not specialization. The focus on specialization is either lazy thinking or an inability to truly understand the issue.

It is not that early single sport specialization leads to injuries, it's the constant intense use of the body that leads to injuries. Most sports use the same basic bio-mechanical movements.

In sports, you basically use a lot of legs (running, jumping, etc) or a lot of arms (throwing, swinging, hitting, etc). Kids are just as likely to get injured when they play travel soccer in the Fall, AAU basketball in the Winter, travel lacrosse in the Spring, etc . Playing a bunch of other sports will not fix the issue.

It is not the specialization but the intense and continuous tasking on the body without first developing baseline physical strength and balance. It’s the non-stop highly competitive games in all sports.

Most of these kids can’t run correctly, yet we think they are ready to compete. We adults have created a youth sports environment that mimics professional sports without accounting for the fact that young people need to develop first.

The focus should be on skill development. Kobe even pointed this out in the ESPN article. Kids playing sports should focus on developing layered skills in their respective sports. After developing a certain baseline of sport specific skills which will also coincide with motor-skill refinement and physical growth, intense competition is the next natural step. You don’t get a Kobe, Jordan, Messi, Tiger, Serena, without focusing on skill development as a youth.

In years past, the skill development process happened naturally because youth sports was not so formal. These days it’s difficult for parents to keep their kids active without putting them in organize sporting programs.

Once a kid enters organize sports, it quickly turns into an arms race to win at all cost. Parents are not interested in paying $1000 for little Mikey to just work on developing his skills so he can be a skilled athlete with a strong body in five years. Parents want little Mikey to play and win as many games as the league can schedule. We want the championships now!

Once we step back, we can see that these kids are ticking time bombs not due to sport specialization but because we’ve changed the environment to have a hyper-focus on early intense competitions.

Blog: Blog2
bottom of page