Sport Specific Athlete versus an Athlete
The drawbacks of developing a sport-specific athlete versus an athlete in general. Coaching youth sports offers me unique insight on athletes and what it takes to be successful in sports. I learned early on in my coaching career that for younger athletes below the age of 12 the goal should not be to develop a sport specific athlete like a gymnast but to develop an athlete in general. The goal at the end of the day for a parent should be to say “I have an athlete who does gymnastics.” As a head coach, I always tell my athletes don’t focus on being a track runner solely, instead focus on being an athlete who runs track. Thus, the concept of developing a general athlete. Now you are probably thinking, what is the difference between developing a sport-specific athlete and developing an athlete a general? The difference between developing a sport-specific athlete and developing an athlete a general in both mental and physical.
First, let’s talk about the physiological standpoint of how the body works. If you look at the picture of Lebron carrying a tire, there is no part of basketball that requires him to carry a tire. This workout is part of Lebron’s general conditioning training regimen. My guess is this exercise will help Lebron be “in shape” not necessarily basketball shape but just in shape in general. Most athletes need three main energy systems to function efficiently. These energy systems are Anaerobic(strength), Anaerobic Lactic(strength endurance) and Aerobic(endurance). Now for all, you coaching gurus out there don’t judge me, but I am going to simplify this for the regular folks. Developing an athlete from a general standpoint would require a coach to focus on improving each of the energy systems in unison with the others and from a holistic perspective. What has happened across many youth sports is that young athletes have become too sport specific in their development and end up forsaking developing all the energy systems appropriately in favor of developing the primary energy system(s) that is the focus of that given sport. What this causes is an imbalance in the development of the athlete which the athlete will end up paying a considerable price in performance down the road.
How do these system imbalances affect gymnast? Well, if you look at gymnastics from a physiological standpoint the main energy systems that are needed are strength and strength endurance. If you are in a program that only focuses on skills and not developing the athlete from a holistic standpoint, then there is probably a chance your gymnast scores are being impacted negatively because they are not powerful enough or can’t stay powerful long enough to make it through a routine. It has been all too often when I talk to a parent, and they are telling me about all the “up skills” their child’s gym is teaching but yet they are not fundamentally sound on the current level’s skills or have the fitness requirements in place for those skills. Obviously, coaches will naturally have some bias in favor of the energy system(s) that is specific to the given sport, but it should be within reason.
Mentally being an athlete requires discipline, focus, commitment, and determination. A coaches job is to coach, and a parent’s job is to make their children “coachable.” Parents accomplish this by instilling discipline and focus. If your child is un-coachable, then it is unfair to ask a coach to be both coach and babysitter. It is also unfair to the parents who have made their kids coachable because if a coach has to constantly contain your child, then it is pulling from actual practice time. Most coaches know that young athletes will lack focus, commitment, and determination to a certain extent. Those traits come with maturity. On the other hand, discipline is a trait that doesn’t require success or maturity; it is taught at home. These traits are not unique to any one sport but developing them can make someone successful across many sports and sports is just a small preview of real life. When my daughter competes she does not have to focus on winning the competition, all she has to do is do what she does in practice. If her practices were solid, then it is not unreasonable to expect her competition to be solid also. I know this is cliche but the saying “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect” is true. I always tell my athletes it is unreasonable to train your body like a Ford Escort in practice and then expect to drive it like a Lamborghini in practice. When the “bullets” start flying the body reacts off habit so if your gymnast develops the bad habit in practice they will show in competition.
Overall, I think parents should focus on developing their athletes in general, especially for young athletes. Most colleges can’t recruit athletes until high-school, and no one besides the parents remembers or cares who won the state title at the lower levels. Winning at this point albeit a confidence builder is pretty much only good for a few likes on Facebook, so err on the side of ensuring your athlete fundamentally sound and what it takes to be an athlete in general and success will come.