How Young Is Too Young To Start Recruiting Kids?

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LeBron James, Jr. may be a very good college basketball player. In about eight years. Right now, he's 10.

But this week we learned that some college coaches have already written to let young LeBron know they're interested. He's even received some scholarship offers. Which feels a little weird, since it would seem his dad could handle tuition, room and board, and fees without much trouble.

Dr. Dan Gould, the Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, spoke with Bill Littlefield about the implications of recruiting kids.

BL: You have worked with athletes of various ages, children included. How does the idea of a 10-year-old being courted by college coaches strike you?

In some ways it can steal the young person's childhood.

Dr. Dan Gould

DG: Unfortunately, it makes sense given how professionalized kids' sports have become. But it makes no logical sense based on my knowledge of athlete talent development. And it's just — kids aren't ready to even be considering where they're going to go to college, much less be recruited.

BL: I'm sure most 10-year-old basketball players would be thrilled to hear from Ohio State or from Kentucky, but can we assume there might be some negative consequences involved either in the present or somewhere down the line?

DG: Oh sure. Especially, he's 10. And you know most kids hit puberty 11 to 12. And now obviously his dad's a tremendous athlete, but even if your dad's a tremendous athlete it doesn't mean you get the exact gene set to become a tremendous athlete. It'd be hard enough being LeBron James' kid and people come to the game and "Oh, you're not as good as your dad," much less now colleges are recruiting you? In some ways it can steal the young person's childhood.

BL: This week's story is a big deal in part because the 10-year-old's father is one of the best basketball players on the planet but have you heard of other cases this extreme — or nearly this extreme?

DG: Well, over the years we've run into parents who really push their kids. They  love their kids but they want to ensure that their kids are going to be successful. And they somehow get bought into, "sports is a ticket." There're studies that have shown that it's very hard to try to predict athletic talent. There's just a study done in Europe like with 4- or 5,000 tennis players and judo players at the junior level. And there wasn't a very good correlation between being a junior-ranked player and being a senior-ranked player.

So if you're looking under puberty, sure you'd get some prodigies like Tiger Woods was, but I even wonder now — now Tiger's aging out, but he has so many injuries. Was that because he started out so young?

BL: Started out swinging a golf club when he was 2-years-old on Johnny Carson or something like that.

DG: Yeah, yeah.

BL: Of course it’s not, as you're suggesting, just basketball. Sixth-grade football players are being profiled on the recruiting site One such pre-teen is described as the “Future Tom Brady in action!” What does it do to the psyche of a 12-year-old child to be described in that way?

DG: Well, one, most kids are probably going to like the notoriety. I mean, you get your picture in the paper. Everybody's saying, "You're great!" And that's fine as long as you keep playing well. But if some of the other kids — maybe you play the same as you had, but some of the other kids hit their growth spurt and they get bigger and stronger, and you're not quite winning as much as you used to.

It's sort of like there's only one way to go, and [it's] down. You know, I just got back from a conference in Washington when we were talking a lot about long-term athlete development. And most of the research says for people who are genetically gifted enough and have the motivation, they want to sports-sample when they're young, they want to fall in love with the sport, they just want to play, be a kid--they need free-play activities. Then [at] 14, 15 they start to learn to train. They get more serious and then when they get to college, for most sports, that's when it gets more serious. But a lot of people are trying to condense this to younger ages today.

BL: As you have suggested, often a young athlete's biggest boosters are his parents. What advice would you give to the parents of an athlete who's shown great promise as early as 10 years old?

DG: Yeah, what I would do is first, I wouldn't talk about potential. We studied Olympic champions' parents. And in the early years of sport involvement, they focused on teaching their kids values that most of us want to teach our kids: follow through on your commitments, be a good sport, be a good teammate, enjoy your friends. If you get success, great. But we love you whether you're successful or not.

[sidebar title="The Psychology Of Sports Cheating" width="630" align="right"] Allegations that the Patriots deflated footballs prior to the AFC Championship prompted us to ask a Wharton professor about the psychology of cheating in sports.[/sidebar]If you work with young people and they fall in love with sport, they're going to drive their own involvement. They're not going to need me as a parent driving them. So I'd sort of back off. You know, encourage them. Be supportive. But sometimes you may even — they want to practice all year-round, and that might not be good for their arm if they're a young pitcher. And you make them take some time off.

I often use the analogy: just because a kid wants to do it doesn't mean we allow them to. Like most kids would want to stay up all night and eat candy. But as a parent, we step in. So just because your son loves baseball and wants to be on the Red Sox at 10 doesn't mean we let them play 11 months a year.

BL: It strikes me also that it's hard, perhaps, to figure out what the consequences are of parent-child involvement in this field. Take Tiger Woods, for example, whom you brought up. His dad had him swinging a golf club on national television very shortly after he learned to walk. He became perhaps the greatest golfer of all time. And now, of course, he's gone through all sorts of scandal and is having, as you say, all sorts of physical problems. I'm not sure what the straight lines of logic in development are there. 

DG: Well, and I think for most of us that study this area will tell you, being any kind of parent — a sport parent — is not easy. Your kids don't come with playbooks. They don't come with instructions. And as a parent, you're trying to figure it out. And I think a lot of times what we do is we see the pro-model on TV, and we kind of do what we see the pro coaches do or what the pro athletes [do.] And we don't make elementary school college. We give things to kids that are developmentally appropriate, and as a parent, I kind of need to realize that and help my kid do the best they can and make their way through this world

This segment aired on February 28, 2015.



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