Is High Level Competition Good For Young Athletes?
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The Greater Good. That’s what USA Climbing had in mind when they proposed to end the youth D (ages 10 and under) competitive season at Regionals. If the proposal is approved, youngsters will no longer be present at either Divsionals or Nationals.
The decision brought with it a mixed response from parents and young competitors alike, prompting the ubiquitous, hairy question: Is high level competition good for young athletes?
“We know that year-round participation in one sport, especially for young ages, is bad. You can type that into Google and find that information easily,” says Marc Norman, CEO of USA Climbing, in an interview with Gym Climber. “The back-to-back seasons really mean climbers climb year-round. With the updated recommendations, we’ve only reduced the schedule for Youth Ds by five to six weeks, not a huge step, but a better step. Even the most elite athletes will often take a month or month and half off every year, so why are we asking our kids to go year round?”
USA Climbing’s decision has not been finalized. The Board will meet in one week on February 19 to give their final stamp of approval or to reject the proposal from the USA Competition Task Force (CTF).
The CTF, a publicly selected 15-member board, includes coaches, athletes, routesetters, judges, parents, PhDs, gym owners and regional coordinators. The CTF arrived at their recommendations through significant research and discussion. The group looked at the American Development Model (ADM), other National Governing Bodies’ implementation of the ADM, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, peer reviewed studies, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the Long Term Athlete Development model from Athletics Canada in order to arrive at the best recommendations.
All of these models are actually very similar with mirroring developmental stages and recommendations with the end goal in mind: for the athlete to be active for life.
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For the 6-to-9-years-old stage, Athletics Canada writes: “Activities should be all-inclusive with no formal competition or periodization at this Stage.” “This early stage requires coaching that will allow fun and enjoyment through discovery and exploration,” writes the ADM.
When it comes to what we know about early-competition tracks, the evidence is available and “damning,” as the Vancouver Sun put it. The article continued: “Early specialization has negative impacts on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of athletes, both in the short and long term.”
Dr. Mininder Kocher, chief of the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital, described how he has noticed an increase in the number of serious sports injuries, suah as ACL tears and osteochondritis dissecans, in young, competitive athletes. “More kids are getting injured, the injuries are more severe, and they’re happening to younger patients,” he told discoveries.childrenhospitals.org.
According to data from five studies involving a total of 5,600 athletes 18 or younger, youth who devoted all of their time to one sport too early were 81 percent more likely to experience overuse injury. By limiting the competition season, USA Climbing makes that type of early specialization and overtraining less likely.
In addition to the physical ramifications of too much too soon, young athletes could be at risk for mental and emotional damage. You don’t have to look far to find superstar athletes that had early, if not painful departures from their sports. Andrea Jaeger, a 1980 tennis competitor by the age of 8 and pro by 14, is a prime example. “People didn’t talk to me for years, years because I was no longer of value,” Jaeger said to The Guardian following a career-ending shoulder tear. She recalled a reporter telling her after the injury, “You will never amount to anything ever again now that you can no longer play tennis.”
Jaeger is an extreme example of what happens when young athletes become too attached to their sports, but her experience reflects that of many young athletes today. Developing children may simply not be ready for the mental and emotional ramifications of high levels of competitions.
Dr. Dean Kreillaars, a leading expert on movement and physical literacy, related a conversation he had with Lanny McDonald, the NHL Hall of Famer, to the Vancouver Sun.
“If you ask him how many outstanding citizens … there are out of all the teammates that you had, after they had a good career in the NHL, … his answer to you will be only about one in 23 players,” said Kreillaars. “(Many of them) after they leave hockey will have lost their identity because they are over-specialized, and their identity is 100 percent tied to a single sport. They have no versatility, and no longevity, and no durability.”
Climbing is blooming and the pressures young athletes face will only increase. As a coach of four years and a former youth competitor, I’ve noticed the increase in the number of parents pushing their kids to level up to the next highest team or level of competition. “Can you move my kid up to the big kid practice?” “Will she make Divisionals this year?” “What can we be doing at home to help him train?”
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those types of questions, trouble begins when the word “fun” is replaced with “train,” “win,” or “develop.” Children 10 and under, regardless of athletic ability, need to have the space to be children. “It’s really simple, and it will sound like an oxymoron, but kids play sport for one reason: to have fun,” said Glen Mulcahy, founder of Paradigm Sports, a service for athletes, parents and coaches.
In addition to heading off physical and psychological damage, USA Climbing’s goal is to better prepare kids for competition. The USA Climbing Task Force is proposing a “End-of-Year National C/D Climbing Festival” as opposed to the National Championship. The festival would include competition, training sessions, “mentoring” or demonstrations by pros or older climbers and fun activities. C and D climbers who qualified and competed in Regionals would be eligible.
“65% of climbers get eliminated from the Championship competition day one,” says Norman. “It would be great to take that 65% and be able to provide education, to get them climbing more the entire weekend, not just the first day for a very limited period of time. Let’s teach them how to not be in that 65% next time.”
The C and D Festival will not only incorporate competition but also get the route setters, coaches and kids to work together to learn new moves and ways to approach different boulders. The Festival will ultimately grant kids a rare learning-opportunity. Parents and coaches, too, can take workshops about how to better support their young athletes.
“Just because we use the traditional competition format for adults, that doesn’t make it the right thing for kids. I know we can do better,” says Norman.
The Cons of a Limited Season
Michael DeCorte, father of a Youth D competitor, posted a survey on USA Climbing regional Facebook pages. The survey received over 250 responses, with 73.7% of parents opposed to USA Climbing’s pending decision. Only 16% were in favor of the Regional end for D climbers. 250 responses is only about 3% of the competition climbing community, so it isn’t statistically significant. It is, however, indicative of a strong push back from at least some parents of competitive climbers.
“A kid is not going to be more mature to handle high level competition at 12, opposed to 9. Their brains don’t develop significantly during those years to make a difference. This question is more about parenting, opposed to potential damage to a kid,” says Connie Lightner, mother of pro climber Kai Lightner. “As long as the parent helps their kid keep things in perspective … and always remind their kid that life is bigger than a competition goal, then their kid will have more benefits than negative outcomes through high level competitions. Perhaps the answer is focusing on creating a parenting code of conduct and resources to guide parents, as opposed to banning high level competition participation.”
Kai Lightner is a two-time Open National Champion and 10-time Youth National Champion. He has been competing since he was 6 and he cites climbing as the vehicle for him learning numerous valuable life skills at an early age, including how to be disciplined, focused and even to handle failure. While he didn’t qualify for semifinals his first time making it to Nationals, age seven, he used goal setting to progress and stay motivated. He won his first National Championship at age 10.
“I think that it would be a huge disservice to kids of the next generation for them to miss opportunities by not allowing them to compete,” says Kai. “I also was able to build friendships with kids from all over the country who, despite coming from very different environments than my own, shared my passion and drive for this sport and made me feel included and understood,” he adds.
Other countries generally have stand-alone national competitions for C and D competitors. While the C/D Climbing Festival will incorporate competition, fostering a learning environment will be the main focus for event organizers. The CTF has not yet worked out whether or not ribbons or medals will be awarded at the Festival.
Many of the current U.S. top climbers—Ashima Shiraishi, Natalia Grossman, Colin Duffy, Alex Johnson, Drew Ruana, Sean Bailey, Margo Hayes, Brooke Raboutou, the list goes on—all started training and competing Nationally at or before age 10. With the CTF proposal approved, young USA Climbing competitors will be set on a very different path than their predecessors and the rest of the world. Ultimately, whether that path will be better or worse is to be determined.
Should Youth Ds be allowed to compete Nationally? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Feedback may also be sent through the USA Climbing forum and via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Image by Blake Berson/USA Climbing