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April 18, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

The dangers of elitism with youth, high school athletes

The dark side of youth and high school sports occurs in the shadows. The root cause is “elitism” — the marketing of 9-year-old players as “all stars,” the parental boasting of their kid’s talent, and the social validation children receive for being successful athletes. All of these factors can harm youth and high school athletes, making it tougher for them to succeed in their sport, in the classroom and beyond.

Imagine a high school hockey player who has been told since middle school that he’s an elite athlete. This player’s life, his social validation, his perception of self-worth has been tied up in these terms. He’s been told, “You’re a great hockey player.” While this is not inherently dangerous, in most cases that sentence is uttered far more than “you’re a great teammate and hard worker” or “you’re a dedicated student.” This player’s life becomes identified as a talented hockey player.

But what happens when this player slowly descends from the elite ranks? Who is he? Does he have a life outside of hockey? Any other hobbies or interests? It’s at this point that the real dangers of elitism come to fruition. But few are paying attention.

It’s not uncommon to be considered elite one year and average the next. Even when athletes are in high school, the turnover at the elite level can be surprisingly high. In 2012, the Minnesota high performance program — a program for selecting the state’s top hockey talent — saw a 58% turnover from the previous year’s National 15 list and a 38% turnover from the previous year’s National 16 list, according to MinnesotaHockey.org. Players develop at different rates. Goaltender Adam Carlson was cut twice from his high school program, yet last year he signed an NHL contract with the Washington Capitals.

The dangers of elitism extend beyond the athlete who was elite and then was surpassed by the competition. They include many athletes who play high level athletics. Why? Because they’ve been told their performance is who they are. When they have a bad stretch of games or perhaps a disappointing season, they take it as a reflection of their self-worth.

Perhaps the best way to develop elite players in any sport is to ensure they mature into more than just talented athletes. This way, when they face adversity, they’ll have much more in life that puts their sport into perspective and helps them overcome.

Josh Levine is a coach, author, entrepreneur and owner of The Fortis Academy. Follow Fortis on Facebook and Instagram.


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