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Elite junior athletes – do they really exist?
April 09, 2020

Elite junior athletes – do they really exist?

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do." (Steve Jobs)

There are many myths, fables and legends in our wide, wonderful, weird world.

We all know them. They were part of our childhoods.

There’s the one about the big rabbit who comes around at Easter Time each year hiding chocolate eggs for all the good children.

And the one about the big jolly guy with the red suit who flies through the air at Christmas time on a sled pulled by flying reindeer distributing presents to all the boys and girls around the globe.

And then there’s the stories of witches and ghosts and werewolves and vampires that scare the kids at Halloween.

And there’s one more marvellous mystical myth – the one about elite junior athletes.

They’re about as real as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Wolfman.

Elite junior athletes….are you kidding?

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” (Confucius)

So before we get too far into this sporting myth, I acknowledge that in some sports it is possible that a few very special, very talented athletes can be highly successful in elite level sporting competitions at relatively young ages. For example, in some events in female gymnastics, a few swimming events, in diving and occasionally in other sports we see kids in their early to mid teens achieve remarkable things before they’ve hit high school.

However, these athletes are very rare and for the majority of athletes, coaches and parents, chasing early elite level success is a strategy doomed to fail.

It’s a little like finding ways to get rich quick.

Everyone in the world would like to have a little more money. It’s one of the common vulnerabilities we’ve all got. Which is why there’s so many articles, books, videos, courses and seminars about getting rich quick.

Human beings share a few of these common vulnerabilities – areas of our lives where we feel a high level of emotion and are therefore open and vulnerable to people, products and programs which are promoted as the “miracle” we’ve been looking for, the “magic” pill or the “wonder” solution.

The weight loss industry is full of this stuff.

Just as everyone in the world would like a little more money, everyone on the planet would like to look and feel a little better.

How do you lose weight? Eat less – exercise more. Simple.

However, as logical as this simple weight loss solution is, it demands hard work, discipline and life-style changes: changes which the majority of people are incapable and unwillingly of making.

So people and organisations offering weight loss quick fixes like pills, miracle diets, weight-loss-shakes, ab-crunching machines, super-blenders etc. etc. become very successful and highly profitable because they’re offering “guaranteed” results without the hard work.

We’re all geared to look for and to accept things which – even though logically don’t make sense – give us what we want – when we want it – and without having to work too hard to get it.

And this applies to sports parenting just as much as it does to the instant get rich industry and the miracle diet and weight loss business.

Every parent wants the best for their child.

The very thing that defines quality parenting – unconditional love – is the one thing that makes every parent susceptible to promises of success and glory for their child.

And this makes them vulnerable to every dumb idea and nutcase in the sports industry who’s out there promising they’re found a way to help their child become an Olympic Gold Medalist, NBA All Star or the next US Masters winner.

Your children are not elite junior athletes.

“Take a job that you love.” (Warren Buffett)

The first thing you need to accept as a sporting parent is that your child is NOT an elite junior athlete.With just a few exceptions, there are no such things as an elite junior athletes.

There are no elite 10-year-old backstroke swimmers.

There are no high performance 11-year-old soccer players.

There are no elite level 9-year-old tennis players.

Your 7-year-old child might be able to swing a golf club but she’s not an elite athlete.

They are children. That’s all – children.

Children are deserving of your unconditional love and complete acceptance – not for what they do – but for who they are.

If they happen to kick or run or swim or throw a little better than the other 9-year-olds – that’s wonderful.

But time and time again all over the world we see evidence of young kids who are pushed, promoted and prodded down the increasingly discredited “pathway” system failing to realise their potential or even remaining involved with the sport much past their mid teens.

So who’s at fault here?

“I have written because it fulfilled me … I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.” (Stephen King)

All of us!

Coaches are to blame because we’ve put success ahead of smiles, excellence ahead of enjoyment and periodization ahead of people. It’s hard to blame coaches because they’re doing what they were taught to do. For the past 30 years, sports coaching courses have been mostly focused on sports science, periodization, training sessions, workout design, skills practices and so on. We didn’t teach them that the REAL secret to coaching success wasn’t about understanding lactates, mitochondria and acceleration profiles: it’s about connecting with athletes and inspiring them to be all they can be. In other words, for the most part, we never coached coaches to coach.

Parents have to wear some of the blame because in effect they – not the athletes – are the target market for the elite junior sports salespeople. Granted the love parents feel for their children makes them vulnerable to anyone selling a program or a product or an academy promising to increase their child’s chance of becoming an Olympian or professional athlete, but they’ve still got to take their share of responsibility for the current situation.

Far too many parents – in spite of common sense and logic – believe it’s a very small step from kicking a ball in the local under 5 soccer team to playing for Real Madrid next to Ronaldo and as a result, they do all they can to push their kids into “junior academy programs”, the “first” team and into professional advanced level coaching programs before they start kindergarten. Love your kids. Let them fall in love with their sport. That’s all you need to do.

Sports have to accept some responsibility because they’ve pushed and promoted the “pathway” model and in some instances forced stakeholders to comply with it. Sports were “sold” the pathway as the solution to all their performance problems – a theoretical performance production line from entry level to excellence. And it’s the world-wide commitment to the pathway model that’s created many of the problems we’re currently experiencing in sports participation and driving the alarming teenage drop-out rate in so many sports around the globe.

Schools have to wear some of the fault for the proliferation of junior elite sports academies and institutes. Increasingly secondary schools are establishing “sports-academies” of some form as a marketing tool to attract more families to the school. The majority of schools are not – and can not be high performance environments and shouldn’t be selling themselves in this way.

Private providers must accept some of the responsibility. As a business owner myself, I know how difficult it is the thrive in the highly competitive sports industry. However, as it is in all industries, positive business practices are based on the three Is: Integrity, Integrity and Integrity.

If you’re selling products and services to vulnerable people, e.g. selling sports equipment, sports supplements, sports academy programs etc. to parents who are desperate to help their children succeed and over- promising the likelihood that your product or service will help turn their children into champions then take a deep breath, look in the mirror and change what you’re doing.

The good news…if we’re all part of this problem, then individually and then collectively, we can solve it.

It’s not about excellence: it’s about enjoyment and the experience of sport

So what are the solutions?

“Do what you love; you’ll be better at it. It sounds pretty simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get this one right away”. (L.L. Cool J)

Change the TERMINOLOGY! Never use the words “elite” or “high performance” in the same sentence as the word “junior”. Stop thinking about and talking about elite junior athletes.

Change the MARKETING! Stop trying to sell parents and young athletes that you’ve got the secret to success and that all they need to be a sporting super star is in a bottle or a jar or a bar or in an expensive piece of equipment.

Change the INSTITUTIONS! Start boycotting any sport, any school, any private provider who’s out there selling sports academies, elite sports institutes, high performance academies etc. etc. to families and young athletes. If you don’t support them they will either change or go out of business.

Change the MODEL! The pathway model just does not work. There is NO systematic, sequential, linear athlete development model that progressively evolves the talent and potential of young athletes from their first experiences with sport to Olympic Gold medals, N.F.L. Super Bowls or Golf championships Green Jackets.

Change the SYSTEM! For a start, please stop promoting and selecting junior representative teams.

Change the EXPECTATIONS! If you stop talking about and promoting the idea of elite junior athletes then you’ll stop expecting to find them. Change your expectations of kids and sport.

Most importantly CHANGE YOURSELF! You have to accept that the way competitive sport has been delivered is not working. Amateur sporting clubs are in crisis. National sporting organizations are desperate to find ways of attracting more kids into their sport. Everyone’s blaming something or someone. In the end, start with yourself. If you as a coach or a teacher or a parent or a sport industry leader change the way you think about, talk about and act, you can be a catalyst for change and inspire others to similarly change what they do and how they do it.


“Success is a terrible thing and a wonderful thing. If you can enjoy it, it’s wonderful. If it starts eating away at you, and they’re waiting for more from me, or what can I do to top this, then you’re in trouble. Just do what you love. That’s all I want to do”. (Gene Wilder)

Forget trying to turn kids into to elite level performers. Stop pushing children into “academy” programs. Stop listening to snake-oil-salespeople in the sports industry who are telling you that you need to get kids into organised training and deliberate practice sessions before they can walk. It’s insane.

Concentrate on creating sporting experiences which provide the environment and the opportunity for children to “fall in love” with sport. The one consistent factor all successful athletes – and every great performer for that matter – possess is not a huge VO2 max or the ability to run 40 metres in a few seconds – it’s that they really love what they do – so they do what they love. It underpins everything.

Change the way you think about children and sport. It’s about the “long-game”. It’s about getting them involved, putting a smile on their face, connecting them with the experience of sport then – in the longer term – supporting guiding, coaching and developing the ones who love what they’re doing to the extent that they want to be extraordinary at doing it.

Repeat the following until you start to believe it…there is no such thing as elite junior athletes…there is no such thing as elite junior athletes…there is no such thing………


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