Needy Kids and Millennials
The original title of this post was, "When do you make it special?", but I've been accused of being esoteric before so I thought I'd put a bit more 'oomph' in the title. The premise of the post remains the same though - in what ways do we actually create the 'neediness' of athletes in our charge and at what point to we remove obstacles rather than use them as learning opportunities?
There have been a couple of high profile posts lately which really challenged the idea of 'millennials' being needy and demanding. Frank Martin's being one of the more high profile. John Rosemond wrote about the importance of parenting earlier in the year, which hit some similar themes. The ideas of 'helicopter parenting' seem to be related to the predispositions of the young generation today. What impact does that have in sport?
My question comes back to the idea - when do we make things special for developing athletes? I'll give you an example: At the Olympics there are millions of distractions. There is unique pressure to perform. There are no second chances. In a situation like this, the coach will do what he/she can to lighten the load on the athlete, to make them feel special, and inspired and confident. They will remove obstacles, help them warmup, do their laundry. Anything that might aid performance even a fraction. This makes sense.
But what about before the athlete makes it to the Olympics? What about at the World Cup which is required to qualify for the Olympics? Should this be as special? What about the National Championships which qualifies the athlete for the World Cup spot? How much extra do we do for the athlete at this event in order to help them get over the line? Do we help them warmup for this event or let them do it themselves, just as they do in every training session? What about at a National Junior competition, where a good performance will mean the athlete gets selected to a national squad? How special is this? What about State Champs which qualifies the athlete for that National competition? What about in daily training, where the athlete might not improve enough if they don't have the right snack at the right time, but, you know, they never remember themselves.....?
Part of 'early specialisation' is the professionalisation of junior sport. Because we know what resources are provided to senior athletes, this seeps downwards to juniors. We do more and more things for juniors so that they feel special - just like the big boys. But what is the consequence? If something is done for you from the age of 8, it no longer feels special at 10, it becomes an expectation.
Personally I've probably gone to the extremes at either end of this on different occasions. I had one situation where an adult athlete didn't eat dinner (because there was nothing there she liked) after a big NCAA playoff win, when we had another game the next day. Do I find a way to make sure she eats, or just let her deplete her energy stores? Another situation was at a junior World Championships where the team was so excited to play their first game they wanted to the competition venue 60 minutes earlier than panned, even though the previous night we had talked about nervous energy and the negatives of getting to the venue early and then being flat by the time competition came around. Do I just go with it or use it as a learning opportunity about the impact stress was having on good decision making?
What I would suggest, urge, cajole, and encourage you to do is to wait a bit before making things special. Athletes need to learn. They need to learn that if they don't do recovery they won't feel as good the next day. That if they don't do their strengthening exercises their knees will hurt. They need to learn that if they don't put their uniform in their bag when they leave, then they might end up missing the next game because they don't have a uniform. They need to learn that recovery snacks are for performance, not for enjoyment, and that if there is nothing there that they like then maybe they need to have something they don't like. They need to learn that if they forget to set their alarm then they will miss the bus. They need to learn what good habits are, and what the consequences of not adopting these habits are. They need to have success, but also disappointment. They need to learn how to compete, and also how to have fun. And sometimes (more often than we are comfortable with) it is the role of the coach to let them.