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Developing the Ultimate Athlete

You may know, or you may be, a person that wants young athletes to learn the value of hard work. You may also know, or you may be, the type of person that takes this too far. Pushing athletes helps them reach their potential but pushing too hard hinders development. Parents and coaches alike must find the right balance of stressors to place in the lives of their athletes. Asking more from an individual than what they are capable of is setting them up for failure. Failure is obviously never the intended goal. Even if we think failing every now and then builds character, it never teaches an athlete how to experience success. According to John Wooden, to experience success you simply need to make the effort to do that which you are capable of. Can you really argue with the most revered collegiate basketball coach of all time? I’m not going to. However, I firmly believe in an individual’s ability to improve their capability.


So while an athlete’s current capabilities may dictate their present definition of success, it does not define their potential for future accomplishments.


As a parent, coach, trainer, or anyone else seeking to maximize an athlete’s potential, you need to consider all of the things that go into developing an athlete. The below is not an exhaustive list….but it is pretty extensive.

  • Biological age (where an athlete is at in their physical development – physical maturity)

  • Chronological age (an individual’s actual age)

  • Current training age (how much training/participation has the athlete been exposed to)

  • Mental maturity

  • Sport(s) played

  • Demands of sport(s) played in addition to the skills (power, strength, and endurance needs)

  • Baseline abilities

  • Injury history

  • Time available for skill and physical development

  • Nutritional needs

  • Athlete’s ability to recover

  • Time available for rest

  • Sleep schedules

  • Mental skills (coping and motivational skills)

  • Facilities available for training, practice, and competition

  • Goals and purpose of sport participation

Once this information has been identified, an athlete can be placed onto a team that competes at the appropriate level and with a coach and/or trainer that fits their needs. Some of the items above are fixed but many of them are not. The non-fixed items will need to be addressed if an athlete truly wants to reach their potential. For example, an athlete may need to get more sleep and be placed on a proper nutrition plan. You may also find that a simple goals assessment may need to be completed.


Participation without goals can be fun, but that is like driving without a destination, you either end up right back where you started or you run out of gas.


Please don’t assume that a young athlete needs to train like a professional or even an elite collegiate athlete. More often than not a large amount of time will need to be spent on mobility and foundational strength exercises. Every athlete is different and although many of them will benefit from the same type of workouts, individualization of key components can make a world of difference. In fact, individualization is often what makes the good better and the better, the best.

One area often overlooked in athletics is the mind of an athlete. Everyone assumes the mental part of athletics just falls into place when the rest is taken care of. In today’s world that is clearly not true. Athletes are finding the demands of sport to be far greater than they’ve ever been. Year round participation and training is taxing on the young mind. When you add in academic demands, the stress levels of student-athletes can rival that of their parents/guardians. When an athlete lacks the appropriate mental skills, too much stress can cause an array of other issues. General and athletic coping skills are a must. In addition to dealing with stress, mental skills can improve motivation, increase emotional intelligence, and reduce anxiety. They can also help an athlete achieve a greater level of physical performance. If you’ve ever heard of “being in the zone”, you know exactly what I’m talking about.


Mental skills can help physical skills reach their full potential.


Regardless of what you believe is the perfect way to bring up a young person in athletics, know that experts have done the research and that information can help us “play the odds”. More important than anything else is the notion that young athletes enjoy themselves along the way. In a previous article, I talked about coaching the basic psychological needs of an athlete. Begin by understanding those and go from there. Here are the highlights from that article:

  • Autonomy - Help your athletes feel as if they have a part in why they are doing what they're doing.

  • Relatedness/Connectedness - Connection is critical. Help them to understand that they are a part of something special.

  • Competence/Confidence - Confidence can be hard but it is critical to maintaining interest in an activity. See HERE for some simple confidence building tips.

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