They Are Not Little Soldiers

I had a brief conversation with a skills coach this week. They are switching clubs and are interested in having me work with their next group of athletes. When I asked why they were leaving the answer I got was very unsurprising:

“I don’t care if someone likes me or not, but I’m a human being first and people need to treat me with respect”.

Okay, I wasn’t expecting them to say that, but I wasn’t shocked to hear that they haven’t been treated with respect – given that many head coaches scream and yell, demean, criticize and question the effort of the athletes the fact that they treat their junior coaches the same way is not surprising.

They continued:

“They are not little soldiers” when referring to the athletes.

Again, I’ve been getting this feeling recently when watching some skills coaches. To hear this coach say it was great because I’ve been thinking that there is a better way to training young people than to treat them like soldiers going into battle.

Then the shocker:

“You can’t write someone off at 7″.

This did floor me. While I believe we can assess some athletic potential at a young age, it is true that many national champions didn’t even start training for their sport until 10 or 11 and in the case of some sports even later. Even if someone is training at 6 and appears to be utterly hopeless, there is no reason to believe that they cannot overcome a talent gap with effort to become a much better. And you can’t really assess talent at 6 or 7 because the individual may not have the body awareness to clearly demonstrate their talent.

It is said that getting a person involved in gymnastic or martial arts very early is a fantastic way to accelerate their athletic progress in all areas, and I’ve observed this to be true. But it isn’t necessary. It may speed things along, it may help an average athlete perform at a higher level early on, but it isn’t going to create a champion. Talent is talent, regardless of what has happened in the first 5-10 years of life.

1000’s of children do gymnastics when they are little and do not make the world stage in anything and 1000’s of world class athlete have never done any gymnastics or martial arts. But some skills coaches see the advanced performance, make the jump that it is because of talent and focus their coaching energies on these athletes. When the athletes true level of talent begins to show (usually around puberty), the coaches work them harder and question their focus as opposed to looking at the athlete and realizing that they are relatively good at their sport because of their head start.

Unfortunately they may have written off a number of 7 year olds how have what it takes to be world class but just didn’t get the same athletic start.