Self-Doubt and the Youth Athlete

Self-doubt never really leaves an athlete, even when they have ascended to the college and pro level. All athletes who go on to that next level, whatever that might be, deal with some level of personal doubt as they handle the transition to greater competition.

This kind of anxiety is really pronounced in youth sports since self-efficacy (a belief in one’s abilities) is in flux; “confident adolescent” is essentially an oxymoron. That said, I don’t think you’re ever too young as an athlete to learn the “fake it ’till you make it” concept. For me, this concept is all about positive mind-set, not false bravado or cockiness.

Whether or not you really feel it as a young athlete, act like you belong.  If that little bird starts chirping on your shoulder tweeting, “You know, you’re really not good enough.” Just say, “Thanks for the input, but not now.” Put a little swagger in your step and keep on trucking. You get knocked down, you get up fast. Get insulted by a player, just say, “Thanks for the thought”, and get back to playing. Get insulted by a coach, just keep practicing hard and don’t say a word. The only words that matter are those being said inside your own head. Those have big time power over your results. And when you walk around the practice field like you own it, you’ll feel differently about yourself and your inside voice isn’t going to be speaking the language of doubt because it doesn’t match what you are projecting.

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Critical Advice for Gen-Y on College Education

Higher education is facing an incredible crossroads right now, many of the degrees offered for an exorbitant tuition cost are irrelevant in today’s global information economy. The current cost of a college education in general has smart people questioning the value. Mike Rowe, well-known from the hit TV show “Dirty Jobs” explained in a recent interview, “We’re lending money we don’t have, to kids who will never be able to pay it back, for jobs that no longer exist.” He went on to add that, “I’m not against college education. I’m against debt.” Five figures or more of debt after college is not an inspiring start in life, it’s a heavy burden that’s deeply impacting psyches and life choices.

If you’re going to take on college debt, get relevant, specialized skills with your education. A great many majors simply provide a lot of general knowledge, which is not relevant to the marketplace (employers). For this reason, I firmly believe it is important to have a major that builds a set of unique skills, specialized knowledge, and strong communication abilities.

Brand-new majors emerging out of the information age economy are incredibly specialized and include interactive and social media, environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, sustainable development, homeland security, cybersecurity, and information assurance. Some of these majors may not sound enticing, but I’d like to point out that they were not even offered when I was in college in the ’90s. The world has changed a great deal and so have the needs of the marketplace. Please trust me here: you want to be relevant in the marketplace when you leave college with your degree.

I graduated at the very tail end of the industrial age economy; the information age economy was a mere infant as I accepted my diploma. This meant that majors such as engineering, chemistry, computer science, architecture, and business administration, as examples, got you hired and into a career fast track with the potential for high earnings. Majors such as these provided the specialized knowledge of my time.

Due to the new global economy of the information age, the degrees I just mentioned above don’t guarantee the same bright employment future that they used to. Not that these majors are irrelevant in the new economy; of course the knowledge workers that come from those majors have their place, but the competition for jobs is global, especially in these fields. If you’re graduating with something like an art history degree nowadays, you’ll be making lattes and working for tips while trying to pay down five to six figures in college debt. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 284,0000 Americans with bachelor’s degree or higher worked for minimum wage jobs in 2012; that’s up 70% since 2002. If you’re looking to assign this statistic to the impact of the recession, keep reading.

A lot of the skills stemming from an education in computer science and even business administration can and are now being farmed out to workers in foreign countries for a fraction of what a millenial in the same position might cost. This was not the case for me and my Gen X comrades as we entered the workforce. It’s true for Gen Y, however. And, yes, it definitely affects us Gen Xers too and is changing the way we work. For example, I hired an administrative assistant last year to help me stay organized with various projects. He and his company are located in India. We stayed in touch in real time over Skype and IM. He is college educated, excellent at the work I gave him, and cost me barely over American minimum wage. Again, it’s a new world

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Don’t be a Meathead

I suppose my background in football leaves me a great deal more cognizant of young athletes who become obsessed with the weight room and their physiques. Man, I was there, guzzling protein shakes, spending all me free time pumping iron in the weight room, flipping through body building magazines and imagining how amazing I would look in a football uniform with a body like those in the glossy photos.

From what I understand, this version of me has grown astronomically within the adolescent male population. In study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in November 2012, more than 40 percent of middle school and high school boys said they regularly worked out with the goal to increase their muscle mass; 38 percent said they used protein supplements. Those are huge numbers.

The greatest good from training time is becoming a better athlete, not a meathead who strives for size over speed, agility and power (power is not all size, it’s mass x acceleration, which means it requires speed). Big pecs and biceps are good vanity muscles for the beach, but an athlete finds their power base and performance in the hips, glutes, quads and hammies.  A great athlete is going to have big time power endurance – the ability to exert their strength over a long period of time and in explosive intervals. The days of pumping iron gym rat style like Schwarzenegger are over.

Training now includes flipping tractor tires, swinging sledge hammers, mixed martial arts, battle ropes, kettlebells, medicine balls and a whole lot more. These movements build speed, power and endurance – the stuff of athletes. Size will come for the athletes who need it, such as football players. The priority is becoming a better athlete, not the big muscle kid in the school halls who is as stiff as a 2×4.

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Youth Sports Specialization – Part 2 of 3

A three-sport letterman was the gold standard for athletic prowess while I was in high school. The “big men on campus,” who I so badly wanted to emulate, typically starred in football, basketball and track. The elite nature of the three-sport letterman title was a definite draw for me, but honestly, I saw the other sports as developmental for the only sport I was truly passionate about – football. I started playing basketball to help develop my foot work, lateral speed and hand-eye coordination; track was simply a tool to improve my speed. So, in an abstract way, I was a specialized athlete, but only competed in my specialization for the three month long football season.

The idea of playing other sports to improve in one sport, football, was not something I dreamed up by myself. I read about the great athletes of my time and their stories inspired me. Legends like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan were talented multi-sport athletes during their youth and beyond. I found that, foremost, these guys worked at being great athletes and not simply great players in their sport of choice. There is a difference. Those who specialize are working to be great players but not necessarily becoming the best athlete they can be.

When in junior high school, the head football coach at the local high school explained to me that he recruits kids from the basketball team to play specific positions for him. The combination of size, excellent hands, quick feet and ability to quickly separate from a defender to get open for a pass, essential skills for a basketball player, is the desired skillset and physical makeup for the tight end position in football.

My teammate in college, Tony Gonzalez, now a pro tight end for the Atlanta Falcons, was an excellent basketball player and even played in college after our football season. The physical nuances and skills from his basketball prowess were evident on the football field. During Tony’s professional debut on Monday Night Football years ago, the commentators remarked on how effectively he separates from defenders in tight corridors to get open for passes; they credited this skillset to his years of basketball and their comments were spot on.

Different sports obviously build different physical skills, agilities, and the change up during the year substantially reduces repetitive overuse injuries. These are some of the greatest benefits to the multi-sport athlete. Let’s not forget that alternating sports during the year curtails burnout from performing one sport year-round where an athlete never really gets a break from performance stress. Honestly, I didn’t care too much about my performance in the other sports and that gave me a period of the year where I  could enjoy a great deal less performance related pressure and stresses. I’m certainly not saying I was lazy in those sports, not even close. I just understood I wasn’t great at them and it didn’t matter because greatness in football was my only goal. The other sports were part of the means to that end.

I ended up playing a lot of different sports outside of football during high school, including wrestling, lacrosse, track, baseball and basketball. Some I played for one season, others for a couple, but I was always in three sports a year working to be a better athlete, which ultimately made me a much better football player.

I get, as example, that swimmers aren’t likely going to improve their stroke playing soccer during the Fall. They will develop greater aerobic capacity and leg strength – all valuable to the swimmer - but most importantly they get a break from swimming, a different social experience than the swim team and these things keep young athletes fresh and hungry to compete at the sport they do best. I hope this inspires some consideration before spending thousands on club teams, tournament travel and such when the net result will more than likely not be a college or pro career.



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Youth Sports Specialization – Part 1 of 3

Specialization in youth sports has become mainstream in America and the debate will rage on for years regarding the upside and downside of the trend. After reading a weekly series written on this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle, article here, I was not surprised to have all of my concerns comprehensively confirmed. Foremost, orthopedic injuries are at all-time highs due to the overuse of developing joints. For example, as stated in the article linked above, “There has been a five-fold increase since 2000 in the number of serious elbow and shoulder injuries among youth baseball and softball players, according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.” The overuse injuries are found in all sports, whatever the specialization might be – tennis, swimming, soccer, volleyball, etc. A developing body with immature tendons, ligaments and muscle tissue is not adequately equipped to handle the stresses from year-round repetitive, single sport specific movements.

As a certified personal trainer working toward my youth training specialist accreditation, it is clearly delineated to me by the American Council on Fitness in alignment with the other major governing bodies in sports performance, that, “Training for young athletes should be as diverse as possible for as long as possible. Once high school is completed, that is the appropriate age to specialize in one activity.” Essentially, the governing bodies made of sports physiologists, kinesiologists and orthopedic surgeons are ignoring the fact that this path of specialization is leading young student athletes toward athletic scholarships. Of course they’re ignoring that fact and should be, that’s not their concern. The physical and mental wellbeing of our youth is their concern as it should be ours.

I completely understand there is a major payoff in specialization and I attribute this to the 10,000 rule discussed at length in the book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The author provides numerous examples from musicians to computer programmers to ice hockey players who, after 10,000 hours of practice, exhibit mastery. Youth who bank the hours of practice earlier and longer than their peers will likely excel past them; I think it is reasonable to say that a soccer player participating in team and club sports year-round is going to improve beyond someone of the same age playing only during their school’s soccer season. There is going to be a vast difference in the hours spent ball handling, passing and improving at the slight nuances of the game – stuff that can only be learned with practice and, specifically, game experience. Guess who gets picked for the elite club teams and given the exposure, which leads to greater opportunities?

My question to all of you is, “To what end?” Very few adolescent athletes will ever get a dollar to play in college, but each athlete who specializes will endure the physical overuse and psychological burdens of constantly having to perform to get on the right club teams, all-star teams, camps and tournaments. Isn’t it worth taking a step back and really looking at the ends? Where is this realistically leading your son or daughter and is it worth it?

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