Call them the myth-busters.
Because youth sports are saddled with so many myths, UW sports psychologists Ronald Smith and Frank Smoll have spent a large part of their careers dispelling these misconceptions and trying to make youth sports more of a child-oriented, fun activity for everyone involved – players, coaches and parents.
The prevalence of these myths also is one of the reasons why Smith and Smoll have added a new section for the second edition of their book, Way to Go, Coach. The new material covers children’s physical development, training and conditioning, and sports injuries. The book is intended as a practical guide to steer America’s 3.5 million volunteers through the sometimes-trying experience of coaching children. The new edition was published recently.
“Most people who become coaches have a better understanding of the skills and strategies of a sport than with the psychological and biophysical development of young athletes. Many people think if they played sports they have enough knowledge to coach kids,” said Smoll.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of myths out there about coaching and sports,” added Smith.
These include believing that:
- What’s appropriate for a 15-or 16-year-old is fine for a 10-year-old.
- Sports drinks are beneficial.
- Put heat on injuries.
- Performance-enhancing drugs are not addictive.
- All 11- and 12-year-olds are developmentally the same.
“Knowledge about these areas is generally low because these myths are so common in society,” said Smith. “And there is the strong influence of professional sports, where you have someone of Mark McGwire’s stature talking about using a performance-enhancement substance, androstenone, the year he hit 70 home runs. Coaches need to have a level of knowledge in these areas so they don’t do things that can have a negative impact on young athletes.”
“People can pick up the correct information and easily understand it. This is not rocket science,” Smoll said.
The UW psychologists have spent nearly three decades studying youth sports and developing a program for educating coaches. They strongly believe coaches must be taught that there are large physical and psychological differences, even among youngsters of the same age.
“Differences in maturity need to be taken into account,” said Smith “Bad things can happen if a coach isn’t aware of the difference between a 10-year-old’s level of physical maturity and a 16-year-old’s. In collision sports such as football and hockey there also is a significant risk in having late-maturing athletes playing against early-maturing athletes of the same chronological age.”
Psychological issues also need to be handled, according to Smoll.
“The early-maturing athletes need to be told they have to work to continue developing their skills while late developers need to be encouraged. The biggest number of sports dropouts are among late-developing kids who get discouraged early and among early developers who don’t continue to work on their skills and then get discouraged as others catch up to them developmentally,” he said
The authors also explore a number of myths surrounding conditioning and weight training, and drugs in youth sports.
They prescribe specific basic stretching and conditioning programs for young athletes and say weight training is all right as long as it is properly monitored.
“A lot of the stretching exercises that were used in the past should be eliminated,” said Smith “Ballistic or jerky quick stretching can be dangerous and most youth coaches don’t know this. We were amazed, but even many high school athletic coaches are unaware of this, too.”
Research, they said, has shown weight training can be beneficial, even for pre-adolescents. The key is that at early ages athletes should not over-extend themselves, subjecting them to injury or burn out. Coaches need to know what is correct, safe and appropriate for a young athlete and they should talk to the parents if what an athlete is doing isn’t appropriate.
“Growth and performance-enhancing drugs are a huge problem today,” said Smith. “All kinds are available and accessible to kids, including substances that are illegal. There is this perception that, ‘Everyone is doing it – doing drugs – so I’ll be left in the dust if I don’t.’ Coaches need to educate kids and parents about the dangers of drugs. Our research shows coaches have a tremendous impact on kids. What they do and say is not trivial.”
As for myths about sports drinks and putting heat on a strained muscle, Smith and Smoll emphasized that there are better choices. Exercise physiologists and sports medicine specialists agree that water is the best sports drink, and ICE (ice, compression and elevation) is now the preferred treatment for new injuries within the first few days.
Another reason the UW psychologists added the new section on health and safety considerations was a request for the material from the Rutgers Youth Sport Safety Council. The council handles training for youth coaches in New Jersey and adopted Way to Go, Coach as part of its instructional package. New Jersey was the first state to enact legislation protecting volunteer coaches from lawsuits, and coaches are required to attend a safety orientation and training skills program.
“Among the myriad youth sports books that have been published in recent years, none compares to the quality and practicality of Way to Go, Coach,” said Gregg Heinzmann, director of the council. “I’m so certain of its educational potential that it has become standard issue to the 10,000 volunteer youth sports coaches who attend our clinic every year.”