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Guiding Athletes to Success: The Parents Role

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

Last month a parent of a young athlete stopped by to inquire about signing them up for our upcoming middle school winter performance camp. The athlete, a middle school female, is one active young lady and by the sounds a very talented athlete. She is currently competing on two different basketball teams and playing 3-4 games a week. Some weeks there are off day practices on top of the games where she is on the court for 1-2 hrs. She then works on her skill development at home on top of the time spent practicing and competing with her teams. The at home time is very self-driven and something she is passionate about doing with or without parental help. In one of my favorite coaching or even parenting books, “The Talent Code”, author Daniel Coyle would describe this type of training as "self practice", which proves vital to an athlete’s success later on in their career. These hours of practice during this stage in their development are in many ways what separates the elite from the average…Needless to say, I told the parent that I felt starting a training program right now might not be the best timing for their child.

Was this right?

I would love to have this athlete training with us and eventually she will, however right now is not the time to start a new training program considering all that she already has going on in her life physically and emotionally. A girl at this age is nearing peak height velocity, or for some early bloomers is already there. Boys tend to be a year or two behind on this curve but we must still be aware of the impact that this has on young athletes’ development and the other stressors in their lives such as sport, school, social and emotional stressors, nutrition and sleep. In other words, “growing pains” involve so much more than an athlete’s response to physical stress. You get one body and it’s vital that we develop it safely and also effectively.

The LTAD or Long Term Athletic Development Model, suggests that at the middle school age of approximately 9-12 years old there be approximately 70/30 percent Practice to Game ratio. This young athlete is closer to 50/50. It’s a tough situation, and one that many parents battle with as they simply want their young athletes to have every opportunity that they have the means to provide them with. The thought of our children becoming an elite level athlete someday is really exciting to think about but as is sometimes the case more is not always better. We must also remember that we get one body, and from a physiological standpoint once it’s compromised it’s always compromised, so we must be careful during this developmental stage. We could also bring up a point that too much competition at a young age could potentially lead to mental and emotional compromise later in their careers, which can be quite difficult if not impossible for a parent to quantify. Trauma from too much volume or competition or even pressure from parents as a youngster

may not present itself as a full blown psychological injury until later in their career.

Some of us may remember Todd Marinovich, aka “Robo QB”. Todd’s father Marv, a retired NFL player was called the Dr. Frankenstein of his “test tube QB”. Marv managed every piece of his sons career from a very young age, trying to create the best QB ever. In short, Todd’s career in the NFL didn’t last so long, and after a blown ACL, herniated disc, and then a heroin addiction people have no problem blaming Marv for pushing his son just a bit too much. So, what is the best approach? Is the young female I mentioned earlier doing too much? Should we push our young athletes to the brink or lay back and play it safe? As is many times the case it would seem the answer is somewhere in the middle…

I can almost guarantee that for every superstar athlete you watch on TV there was a parent(s) who was encouraging and pushing that athlete along the way while also making extreme sacrifices on their own end. Remember athletes only know what they know, and as middle schoolers and even into their early teens it will require the support and also sufficient pushing from parents to achieve greatness as an athlete later in their career.

These developmental years are vital to later success in sport, especially those sports that require very specific skill acquisition such as the tennis strokes, hitting a baseball or softball, driving a golf ball, making a slap-shot on skates, dribbling and shooting a basketball, or the specific skill development, body awareness and precision needed for success as an elite gymnast. There is a big difference between becoming elite and simply becoming proficient when it comes to developing these skills. Those athletes that rise to greatness almost always have a background that involves many more hours of “self-practice” and drilling of the needed skills than those who are average athletes expressing average skill sets. Yes I am aware of the studies in which research points to mastering basic movement patterns such as squat, hinge, push, pull, jump, land, etc. before moving on to more complex movements. Our programs here at XIP revolve around mastering the basics and staying focused on these through HS and into college. You can read a past article I wrote on this topic here....However, when it comes to developing above average abilities at a specific skill, such as dribbling a basketball or soccer ball, a baseball or softball swing, driving a golf ball, a tennis stroke, etc. you will need to put in above average effort, and that means many hours of self practice refining those skills.

It is my opinion that parents should push their athletes towards success at a young age if they are interested in their youngsters having great opportunities in athletics in the future. This does not mean you turn into some over the top crazy parent who screams at their child from the sidelines and waits after games and practices to give the coach a piece of your mind, or attempts to manufacture an athlete like Marv Marinovich did. There’s nothing wrong with a little intensity and extra work in the backyard, in fact that piece is vital to long term success. Just be sure to channel it in a positive manner and in a way that encourages growth.

What it does mean is that you help your young athlete set goals at a young age and then hold them accountable to achieving them. Accountability is a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to finding success in athletics and parents must be accountable on their end as well. This means making time to help young athletes with self-practice at a young age. Remember the skill development and repetitious pursuit of this skill is what is so vital when they are young. It does not mean being on more teams and more competition where the focus is on the score or winning. It means a greater focus on mastering the foundations needed to be great, and putting in the work to do this. This takes many hours of dedicated and structured practice each week and sometimes this is the piece that many simply can’t commit to, athletes, parents or both. So sit down with your athletes and ask them what they want to achieve, aka goal setting. Then write down some specific tactics for how you are going to achieve them, together. Now hold each other accountable for doing it. When going about it this way you have empowered the athlete by allowing them to set the terms instead of you forcing them to do something they may not want to do. Your job is to now remind them, daily, of those goals that they set.

If young Johnny’s goal is to play in the MLB I would assume that perfecting his swing, throwing abilities, hand eye coordination, speed and quickness might be some goals for his skill development. Help Johnny find some drills for enhancing these skills and be accountable to doing it every day. Your job as the parent is to be present and available every day to do this. Johnny must be dedicated to working hard and being relentless in his pursuit of this goal. Make the sessions focused but also fun. If he decides he doesn’t want to practice some night be sure to remind him that this is his goal and that you are here to make sure he holds up his end of the deal. “Quitters will not make it to the MLB.” This is where the parent must be creative and make up a fun variation for the work to be done today, but you still go do the work. This is a form of a push. Even the greats missed a few sessions as kids, but not many…

In a previous article I wrote on Building the Foundations for Success, I spoke about the 10,000 hour rule when it comes to greatness. Why are the young Brazilian soccer players so much more skilled than the rest of the world? Because many of them spend 2-3 hours a day in the streets practicing after school when organized practices are done. Many of them are not genetic freaks, they are instead hard working freaks. Their accountability? For some if they don’t become great they might never leave the lives of poverty that they have come to know…Even if they don’t become the greatest in the world the opportunities that accompany playing at a high level will far outweigh any other opportunities they will have at a great life if they don’t…If we can create accountability and be firm on enforcing it with our young athletes we will be creating more accountable and hard working adults when the days of competition are done.

I highly recommend all parents of young athletes read “The Gold Mine Effect” by Rasmus Ankersen. Ankerson breaks down what separates the elite from the rest, including a chapter dedicated specifically to parents who pushed their children to success and how. This book was actually given to me by a parent of a young athlete whom I worked with. He and his child have created joint goals for her athletic success driven by the athlete, and each has their own responsibility for achieving these goals. This included moving across the country to attend a school to help her achieve these goals. Each is also accountable every day to doing what it will take to get them there and has no problem reminding the other when they are not holding up their end of the deal. This athlete was driven at a young age, and a big reason for this was due to her parents pushing her to stay accountable to the goals that she set for herself. The parent told me that he would get approached by other parents complimenting him on his daughter’s skill as an athlete but also her work ethic and overall attitude towards sport. “They would tell me, I was so lucky to have a kid like this.” This would frustrate him a bit, as he knew it wasn’t luck, and it also wasn’t just the parenting that made her this way. “We have a plan”, he told me. “She wants it and I want it for her, and we are doing whatever it takes to get there, to reach that goal, as a team.” If you want to be great at anything there’s no time for a bad attitude, excuses or screwing off, and this athlete-parent team recognized this early on. Many parents and athletes simply can't stay accountable. Is what this athlete-parent team is doing wrong? I’ll let you decide…

Back to the young athlete from the beginning of this post and the father in search of training. Although I didn’t recommend that they start a regimented training program while in-season considering her current volume I did recommend basic movements that could be done every day to help build the athletic foundations needed for success in the future. Below I have provided a few dynamic warm ups for basketball players that can be done every day. This warm up doesn’t take her away another night during the week, and it can be done on her own terms and even with her parents and siblings. Many of the movements are found in our other dynamic warm ups here at XIP, as evidence suggests that micro dosing these movement patterns over time will better prepare athletes for skill development in the future. We have also found this to be true from our own success with over a thousand athletes in the last 12-15 years of training. We are slow cooking them when it comes to athletic development as opposed to throwing them in the fryalator. The video below was created for basketball teams and players but can be utilized for athletes across a wide spectrum of sports both in and out of season as a means to developing skills that help them find greatness as athletes and prevent injuries during their journey.

I have also provided another warm up that is a bit more comprehensive, this is the exact warm up our HS athletes do before every training session here at XIP. The warm up involves speed and acceleration mechanics as well as some light plyometrics and change of direction patterns that we feel better prepares them for training and sport. Please share this with other parents, coaches and athletes who may benefit.

For parents reading this it would be my hope that whether your child decides to be an athlete, a violinist, a farmer, or a doctor that you take into consideration your role and also responsibilities as a parent and as a coach when it comes to pushing them towards success. Kids only know what they know...If we are not guiding and pushing them towards success in sport and ultimately in life what are we pushing them towards?

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