This is the question that kept circulating in my mind after my latest coach education course. On July 19th I joined 24 other coaches from around the world (China and Columbia were both represented, along with a variety of US states including Hawaii and Alaska) in my second USATF Level 2 Course. The USATF Level 2 has traditionally involved being in residence at one of their locations, but is still being offered online as a result of COVID. The silver lining of assembling coaches from a wide range of locations is one a few reasons that USATF is considering continuing the online option. Making the commitment to dive into any weeklong intensive course is always a little daunting, but the instructors and students alike made this a phenomenal experience. My first Level 2 was in Sprints, Hurdles and Relays, and I was really torn about which one to do this time. Eventually I knew I just could not avoid the Youth Specialization, since the club and our dozens of kids are becoming more and more of a central focus in my life.
What will it take? That question came from several critical topics that were covered throughout the course, first introduced by the instructors, and then presented on by the students. We learned about RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, an essential subject for any coach regarding the various effects of over-training, poor nutrition, and other factors that can lead to a chronic energy deficiency. We learned about current approaches to mental health in sports, youth resistance training, bullying and harassment prevention, and my small group presented on the Icelandic Prevention Model, a novel approach to stemming substance abuse by children based on successful efforts in Iceland. All of these topics combined to challenge each of us to take proactive steps to improving the ways we serve children, families and communities through our athletic programs. No doubt, some of my classmates took the course just looking to gain another credential, but I don’t think anyone left without some sense of our personal responsibility to lead some serious change as the people who introduce the sport of track and field to the next generations of athletes. To address some of the specific problems with youth sports (too much early specialization, too much focus on early performance, lack of access, etc) as well as larger societal problems (the ongoing obesity epidemic, substance abuse, mental health issues, etc) will require creating more relationships among various community entities who are interested in meeting big problems with big, sustainable solutions. As a club this is something we have always appreciated and espoused (for example, working with the Cherry Hill Rec and the Cherry Hill School District to provide a summer track and field camp, teaming up with Camden County to promote the LINK Trail, and to do more outreach to residents who may not know they have access to organized sports, and partnering with The Training Room in Cherry Hill and the Cherry Hill FC soccer club to bring more quality instruction to kids of all abilities), and we will continue to evaluate all of our work by always considering the relationships we are creating, and how we are influencing the common good.
As part of my commitment to being a better coach, running a better club, and serving kids in the most sophisticated ways possible, I will be sharing more information and resources as I become familiar with it. A logical first bit of information, and what essentially formed the basis of the Level 2 course, is the American Development Model. I have this same information listed under the new Youth Sport Resources tab on the website.
USOC American Development Model
The American Development Model is a collaboration of USA Hockey, The US Olympic Committee, and USA Track & Field, and is a dynamic set of recommendations for approaching and supporting the athletic development of children. As opposed to a list of rules, the AMD is more of a sound philosophy that coaches can use as a guide, to work with all kids in ways that help them reach their true athletic potential, while developing a strong foundation that supports lifelong physical and emotional health and well-being. The model is based on the latest research in the areas of youth psychology, sports science, and children’s cognitive and physical development.
One goal of the USOC is to win more medals at the Olympics, so the AMD does not seek to limit the potential of our developing athletes. However, we now know that as a country we are not performing at our potential, because too many kids stop playing sports at a young age, before they have reached their own potential. But potential elite performance aside, we should really be keeping as many kids moving through childhood as possible. There are many different reasons that kids stop playing sports, from socio-economic issues like access to facilities, coaches, and transportation, to coaching issues like pushing kids too hard too soon, and cutting kids from teams that have not demonstrated strong athletic ability. Some of the reasons kids stop playing sports (or never play) can be addressed in concrete ways, but some will likely take years of education to help adults develop a more sophisticated understanding of youth physical development.
In a nutshell, kids mature at different rates, and reach full maturity at different ages. When we celebrate a child’s success at a younger age, we are often just celebrating the feats of an early maturer. This becomes a problem when such early maturers receive more focus from coaches, more high level training, better facilities and opportunities, etc. We now know that early maturing athletes are statistically less likely to reach elite levels of performance, and we know that when late maturers are provided with the same training as their better-performing counterparts, they often “leap-frog” the early maturers when they themselves begin to mature. By focusing on the impressive performance that excites us as parents and coaches, we are essentially limiting future success to a set of kids that may or may not actually be the best athletes.
But put aside the goal of more Olympic medals and success in competition for a moment to consider the millions of kids who will never be elite athletes, but still need healthy, organized, movement throughout childhood to support lifelong health. We still have an obesity epidemic. We still have kids who are missing an opportunity during their growing years to influence permanent healthy changes in their bodies that will support better health throughout adulthood. Every kid deserves access to quality athletic participation, training, and age-appropriate competition. Not only should we be working to retain as many kids as possible, but we also need to be doing more outreach to families who not have access to quality athletic programs.
As a club, South Jersey Track & Field is committed to assisting parents in raising the healthiest kids possible, and we see the American Development Model as an excellent guide. We always emphasize fun and safety first, and we are just as concerned with a child’s emotional well-being a we are with their physical development. We believe that every kid should have access to, and benefit from, organized, informed, athletic programs that teach and encourage regular and consistent complex movement throughout childhood. We believe track and field provides an excellent context for a comprehensive approach to physical movement and development, as a great foundation for any sport. Finally, as an integral part of our mission, we are committed to being accessible to every child in our community. We embrace kids of all abilities, identities and economic means.
We encourage all parents, coaches and others involved in athletic administration to read the information provided by the USOC on The American Development Model.