“Look at my girl. She’s going to be the next Serena Williams.”
This is a phrase I heard from a parent greeting their daughter whose just completed a group Red Ball tennis session. Part of me (most of me) thinks it’s endearing that this parent thinks so highly of their child. The other part says, “Woah, she’s only six-years-old!”
Ask a tennis coach, fitness coach or any coach: How many parents believe their child is athletically gifted? Their many answers will result in a two-word phrase … a lot.
I get it. The emotion of seeing your children excel at a sport can inspire parents to dream big for their children … and they should. But all dreams and aspirations should be placed under the scope of reality. In other words, it is normal to believe your child is gifted, but it is important that parents:
►Have a clear definition of what it means to be “athletically gifted”
►Understand where their child fits into that definition
►Have a reasonable plan of action to address this “gift”
Most parents and some coaches will see a child perform better than other children and use that performance to label the child as “gifted.” Is that what is happening? Is this child taller and stronger than the group? If that is the case, we should consider that children grow at different rates outside the average. The University of Saskatchewan, College of Kinesiology has a Predication of Age of Peak Height Velocity (PHV) Calculator on its Web site. Peak Height Velocity is the moment a child peaks in growth. Coaches and training programs have used the PHV to group children with similar growth rates into the same fitness training and sports lessons, despite age. These programs won’t see the bigger child as the gifted child.
Is this child picking up skills faster than the rest of the group? Is this child less fearful of failure and more apt to take on a challenge? Here’s a fact … the brain is an organ in the body that needs to mature throughout childhood. As with the rest of the body, children develop intellectually at varying rates. Too many coaches and parents treat young athletes as miniature adults. Some children will be considered “gifted” because they have intellectually matured faster, therefore are easier to coach.
The sex and/or gender of a child can be factors as well. Studies like the one published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex, show that female brains mature faster than the brains of a male. You’ll also find numerous studies and articles pointing out that we socialize girls to be less dominant than boys, but are they gifted because their brain grew at a faster rate or were socialized to be less fearful?
Whether or not the child is larger physically, more intellectual or both, does that mean they are gifted? If your answer is “Yes,” then consider this … most children with growth advantages will find that their peers will catch up with them by the age of 14. If the traits that make a child athletically gifted, size and intellect, will disappear in a few years, are they still to be considered “gifted?”
Most experts believe an athletically gifted child is a perfect storm of a few factors. The School Run, a Web site for UK parents, has a list of factors to consider around a child’s athletic talent:
►Learns activities and skills quickly
►Has confidence and the ability to take on new challenges
►Wants to practice and play
►Can self-evaluate and perform effectively
►Has spatial awareness
If you believe your child has enough of these factors to consider them athletically gifted, then congratulations, but now what? Most experts have the same advice.
First, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket or get a better basket. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against specializing in one sport before the age of 12. Early specialization can lead to overuse injuries, which make up to close to half of all sport injuries in youth athletics. If you do decide to specialize, consider private fitness instruction with a trainer who will help create a program that will work in opposition to the effects of overuse from a sport.
Second, great coaches are key. Find coaches who will build on your child’s advantages by nurturing the “less than exceptional” aspects of their skill set. For example, a child who is strong and coordinated might not have great spatial awareness. Great coaches will address this issue by building more spatial awareness in practice or lessons. If you have a coach who is highly enthusiastic about your child’s skills, it might be smart to get the opinion of more than one coach. This can keep things in perspective about investing in your child’s skills. Sports psychologists advise parents to be parents, not coaches. Some studies suggest that parental coaching at early ages can dull a child’s enthusiasm about a sport.
Finally, be realistic about investment and potential opportunities. Some parents can see all the money spent on tennis coaches, lessons, court time and fitness instruction as an investment to their child winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or a scholarship to a Division I school.
Roger Turner is a Fitness Coach/Certified Personal Trainer at Magnus Potential. He brings a divers and unique experience to Magnus and CourtSense Teams. After becoming a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, Turner started working for the Glenpointe Spa and Fitness where he combined his fitness knowledge, his dance experience and military experience with the United States Army, and taught group exercise class (World Rhythm and Military Pump).