2023: The Yearly Debrief
My end-of-year review looks at two articles that got good traction this year, and one that I wish did.
This is the last edition of The Sportkid Newsletter for 2023 and, as I did last year, I want to look back at some of the topics I covered in this year’s letter.
I write about meta issues in youth and national sport development, so I’m curious about which articles get traction and which ones don’t. In 2023 one article shot to the top of the popularity ranking on the site, ahead of some that have been on the site for a few years. It’s the first of three that I discuss.
Talent is an evergreen topic that always draws a crowd
The most popular article this year focused on talent, a subject we seem to know both everything and nothing about. For parents: The youth sport talent illusion is real has received almost 2000 views and a whopping 51 shares since it was published in July. These numbers don’t rival the New York Times but they are the highest stats for any article published by The Sportkid Newsletter since its inception in 2021.
Talent in youth sport is an illusion simply because we aren’t aware of the precursors that may have contributed to a youngsters apparently higher abilities. Consequently, we fictionalize this ability as something mysterious that some youngsters are born with.
Talent, as it is commonly understood, doesn’t exist; no one is born with talent or special skills. Abilities can be explained by opportunity, instruction, practice, and other circumstances of which a casual observer has no knowledge. For example, grandma’s backyard pool or a parent with a musical background easily explains what the uninformed might interpret as precocious ability in swimming or music. We often misidentify early ability as talent because we don't know about the backyard pool or the piano.
Over-valuing early ability by calling it talent can trigger circumstances and opportunities that persist throughout the young athlete’s sporting life. They’ll receive more attention, more opportunities, and more praise and support than peers who showed lower ability while young. But it isn’t the bonanza of good fortune that it may seem at first; there’s a lot that goes into developing elite athletic ability and skill is only one part. Forcing precocious youngsters into more sport participation before they develop an intrinsic interest is a first step toward later burnout. Likewise, relegating those who don’t show early ability robs them of the same opportunities and attention for the length of their participation for no reason.
Today most coaches know that early ability is based on opportunity, lessons, and environment. Skills and abilities have a source. No one is born with them. But the emotional appeal of giving precocious young athletes a leg up in their sport training is hard to overcome.
Coaches who learn ethical reasoning don’t have to “wing it” with tough decisions
In November I wrote about how decision making in sport is aided if the decision maker — often a coach — understands the ethical reasoning process. To some readers the article may have seemed a bit pedantic but it’s the kind of background information that informs everyday decisions.
I plan on at least one more article that focuses on a current situation in sport during 2024. I have several scenarios in mind but if anyone has a suggestion for an in-depth examination of an ethical dilemma please let me know. The purpose of such an article is not to solve the problem but to identify the values involved and understand how different ethical approaches might consider the issue.
As I said in the November article, “Understanding ethical reasoning frameworks can help coaches make good decisions that they can confidently defend.” Ethical reasoning is a skill worth learning.
Is the youth sport economic model reducing national skill levels in our sports?
If you read Has swim training lost the plot? in February then you already know why I think the youth sport model is hurting skill levels. Almost all youth sport organizations offer graduated programs from beginners to national level performance. High performance athletes need longer practice sessions, more costly supplementary training (psychologists, physiotherapists, strength coaches, etc.), and farther and more frequent travel for competitions. This costs money. To support the high performance part of a club program the junior or instructional levels have to be fully subscribed. The income from lower level programs fuels the more expensive high performance groups.
The need to fill available spaces in junior programs can easily lead to over-subscription i.e. too many young athletes in a training session. I used swimming as an example in the original article because it’s easy to see how practice sessions with limited space could easily flip from an educational environment to a training one. It’s much easier to train athletes than it is to teach them skills, and with an over-subscribed practice group the tendency is to train them. The effect this has on long-term development can be devastating.
However, training youngsters is hardly ever considered a bad thing partly because it looks like something useful is happening. But training is not what junior or beginning level athletes need. They need to learn the techniques of their sport; training can wait. Over time, athletes who spend a lot of their junior days training instead of learning are unprepared for the upper levels of the sport. They’re in great shape but they haven’t got the same skills as their truly elite competitors. Unfortunately, by the time they and their coaches realize this it’s too late to do anything about it.
To “get” this, one has to understand the difference between training and coaching at the youth level. Coaching involves teaching and refining skills. Training is a more organized form of exercise. Coaches should teach more than train at the lowest levels of the sport, but this doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is in the model itself. Real change comes from adopting a model that doesn’t reward over-subscription.
What model? That’s a good question, and it’s why I wrote the article. Creating a new youth sport model is what Google would call a moonshot project and if ever there existed one in youth sport this is it. It’s not only what we do, it’s often how we do it that makes the difference.
That's it for 2023. I thank each of my subscribers and look forward to 2024.