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  • Writer's pictureSandra Gallagher-Mohler

We Need to Be Honest: Ponies Can’t Be Stallions

Coaching athletes in the youth sports arena in 2021 is a different profession than it was 10 years ago. Everything moves faster. What was once expected of an athlete by the age of 15 is now ‘required’ at the ripe old age of 10.

Run faster! Be smarter! Want it more!

“UGHH! Why are you so slow?! Are you even paying attention?! You say you want it, but do you really?!”, echoes across the field to the ears of nine year olds. Nine year olds....

Can you feel it? The stress. Reading those words, feeling all that shaming, negative energy- did your jaw clench just a bit? I bet your pupils dilated even if you didn’t notice it. That’s the cortisol and adrenaline invading your system. All because you read words on a page accompanied by a few inflammatory exclamation marks.

Now imagine that you’re 12, seven, five years old even and that this is the message screamed at you often by your coaches, and even parents, whom you respect and admire. Their words imprinting a script into your young developing nervous system. The coding for how your mind and body will perceive and process stress now set in motion for the rest of your life. This is what is happening every day at the hands of many coaches and parents of our youth athletes.

Sometimes, often times even, this behavior is well intended. Other times it’s not.

The multi-billion dollar industry of youth sports in America may be sold by the club programs, the coaches and trainers, but it’s bought by the parents. It is perpetuated by the notion that if these young athletes could only work harder and get in front of the right people, then any athlete can get that Division I scholarship, or become a professional athlete.

As a coach I’ve seen this phenomenon stem most often from one of two perspectives. The first comes from parents who had talent themselves growing up, but now look back and think, “Man, what I could have been if only someone had pushed me a little harder.” The other, from parents who suffer from college-tuition-sticker-shock and believe that an athletic scholarship provided on the foundation of high intensity, year round single focus youth sports is genuinely the only way they will be able to afford college for their children.

But we have it all wrong, and it’s time that we’re honest about this process.

Let’s start with the facts. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), of the just over 1 million high school athletes to play football in the United States, roughly 73,000 go on to participate at the NCAA collegiate level, and of those athletes, only 2.9% of them go on to compete at the Division I level. Boys’ soccer, 460,000 high school athletes, and only 1.3% go on to play at the Division I level. Boys’ basketball, 540,000 high school athletes, and only 1% go on to play DI. Girls’ soccer, 395,000 high school athletes, only 2.4% become Division I athletes. The highest percentage of athletes to advance to the Division I level: girls’ ice hockey, with a total of 9,600 athletes, and 8.9% of them becoming Division I athletes.

The statistics don’t lie, so why are we? Because the truth is- a pony can never become a stallion. Meaning, not every athlete is born with the genetic gifts to reach the highest level, and without these genetic gifts, there is no amount of work ethic that can make up for that.

I know we want to believe that anyone, with the right training and timing, can out-work their genetics. It’s why we pour countless hours and dollars into private coaches, special select teams, and the travel expenses that accompany it all. It’s financially, physically, and emotionally expensive. But yet year after year we continue to manage the upkeep because we truly believe that our kid is special, and that he/she/they is going to be the one who “makes it”.

And you are exactly right. They are special. Very special. And they are going to make it. But it just may be in something other than their sport. It may be in music, or spreadsheets, community connections, or YouTube (yes, we have reached an era where we need to finally admit that YouTube does offer a viable income to some). But we are robbing them of the opportunity to explore their other talents and interests by tunneling them into one specialized niche if we focus unilaterally on youth sport development only.

Yes, some athletes do “make it”. I’ve seen it. It’s not a unicorn phenomenon. It does exist. I've coached it. But it is rare. And we need to treat that level of talent as such.

By focusing so intently on pushing young athletes to be and perform better, we have simultaneously both raised and lowered our expectations of them. We’ve raised the standard for the athletes to an often unattainable level of performance, while also lowering our standards of care. And the kids are suffering unnecessarily.

Not everyone is born to become a college, elite, or professional level athlete. Thankfully so. It’s time to celebrate the diversity of our athletes. Let them explore their talent realistically, with the knowledge that sports are about much more than earning a Division I scholarship, or a professional contract. It is about the life lessons that accompany them, one of which being that sometimes your best simply isn’t enough to “make it” in that arena. So let’s also help these athletes to use all those strengths that sports instilled, to find the next amazing gift they’ll be able to offer the world.

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