Basketball on the Edge – The Two Pathways in Youth Sports

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When you think about your child’s athletic career which of these two descriptions best fit your young athlete?
1. My child plays sports because he/she likes the game, enjoys being with their friends and wants to have fun.
2. My child plays sports with the goal of being the best player that he/she can be. They pursue this goal passionately with limited parental involvement. They are far ahead of their peers in terms of their commitment and drive when it comes to sports.

If your child is like most of the young athletes I have been around as a parent and a coach I’m sure you realize that most kids fit description one much more closely than description two. I recently read an article by John O’Sullivan describing two pathways that young athletes typically follow.

The first is the Sports Participant Pathway, which is characterized by young athletes that fit description one above. The second is the Sports Performance Pathway, which is characterized by description two. This pathway concept is a great way to look at our children’s involvement in athletics and navigate the uncertain moments that we all experience with our kids when it comes to sports.

I had a conversation with a former high school teammate and life-long friend this week about our kids and their athletic careers. Our two boys and two girls range in age from 5th grade to 8th grade. Both of us expressed frustration that our children weren’t especially motivated to get out and work on their basketball skills on their own. Sure, they’ll attend scheduled practices and games. My son will even come to group skills training with me and work hard while he’s there, but… When it comes to getting out and playing on his own or getting up shots or working on ballhandling he’s just not self-motivated. He has other interests, things he would rather be doing. My friend is experiencing the same situation. He said he has told his son this could be his last year playing basketball if he doesn’t work a little harder. The question for me always comes back to, “How much do I push my kids to do more?” The Sport Pathway Theory helps me better understand my kids as young athletes and hopefully it will help you understand yours as well.

Does forcing your kid to practice make them better? Maybe in the very short-term there will be an improvement in their skill level, but long term? Very doubtful. Why? If you have to force your kid to practice or join a team, how much fun will they have doing that? They’ll probably be resentful. It’s more likely that you’ll turn them off early and they’ll quit before they have a chance to develop their true potential. That’s not to say kids on the Sports Participation Pathway should never receive a little push or encouragement, especially as they get older and want to play high school sports. As parents we just need to be careful and remember why they are playing.

Speaking for my 7th grade daughter and 5th grade son they play because they love being around their friends, they enjoy playing basketball, and they want to have fun. It is often hard for me to fully accept that they are on the Sports Participation Pathway, but that is the reality. I have to be very conscious of how I approach their basketball “careers”. Am I doing the right thing by not pushing them more? I believe that I am based on research that I have read, but only time will tell. I have never guided my own children through this process before. I know many other parents also struggle with this issue.

What about those rare kids that are on the Sports Performance Pathway? How can you tell the difference between the participant and performance groups? The performance group doesn’t need a parent to push them. They go to the gym to shoot on their own. They do ballhandling drills in the basement. They work out to improve their fitness. Improvement is important to them. They want to become the best player that they can be and are willing to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve their goal. A young player like this is rare.

My high school friend and I used to ride our bikes cross-town to play one on one games to 100. I had a notebook that I used to keep track of my hours spent practicing each day. I ran wind sprints in the local cemetery! (It had cinder paths and gentle slopes for running uphill and downhill). It used to bother me when teammates didn’t care as much as I did about winning and losing. These are all characteristics of a player on a performance pathway. I understand that I was unique. To this day, people who knew me then talk about how I was always on my driveway or at the park playing basketball. A performance path player like I was will want to advance more quickly than their peers. They may get upset when teammates don’t work as hard as they do. They will look to their parents and coaches for help in getting better, not for motivation.

When we honestly assess our kids and the sports pathway they are on, we can better meet their needs and maximize their experience with the game. For those on the sports participant pathway, we need to understand that they are playing a game they like for fun and to be with their friends. Try not to get frustrated with a child that is on the sports participant path. I know it’s hard. I have read all the advice and understand what the research says and even then it’s still hard for me not to get frustrated and push my kids harder. Instead, be supportive, tell them you love watching them play and don’t try to turn them into the next LeBron James or Diana Taurasi. That’s not what the sports participant group wants from sports. For those kids on the sports performance pathway, we need to understand their focus and drive, providing them exposure to better coaching and training methods to help them grow and excel. Regardless of which pathway your child is on sports can teach them invaluable lessons that will impact their lives for years to come. Remember, these paths are not set in stone. Young athletes can and do change pathways as they grow and mature. The young athlete will ultimately make that decision not the parent.

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