It’s Winter Olympic season once again, an exciting time to watch the best athletes perform what is humanly possible in this era. Even more interesting are the athlete’s personal stories of struggle to be the world’s best, and the sacrifices not only these athletes have made, but their entire families have made over the years. It’s an understatement to say that it’s hard to get into the Olympics, and money and time can help, but never assure one’s place with competing at this elite level.
The WinterGreen Research group, an organization that tracks the U.S. youth sports economy, including sports travel, private coaching, and even apps that organize leagues and games, estimates a $15.3 billion youth-sports market this year, a 55% growth since 2010! An estimated 30 million children up through high school participate in organized sports annually (MSNBC). Of the nearly 8 million high school students who currently participate in sports, only 480,000 will compete at the NCAA schools (NCAA.org).
The statistics get even smaller when you compare these NCAA draft-eligible athletes who move into professional or Olympic level competitors. In 2017, the NCAA estimated 7,679 draft-eligible baseball players of which 695 became drafted to the MLB. Men’s basketball, 4,152 eligible and 795 went pro worldwide. Men’s soccer, 75 out of 5,512 eligible went to play professionally. And of the 16,369 NCAA football players, only 251 made it into the NFL.
The Olympic dream is possible. However, competing at the highest level of human performance not only takes years of training and financial investment, but also the right combination of genetic endowment, opportunity, and winning events. Let’s take a look…
The right genes for your sport might include a high respiratory and cardiovascular capacity, high resistance to fatigue, and many genes that affect your responsiveness to training and recovery, but it’s still not enough! Some skills like coping, competitive drive, and determination are learned along the way, and genetics without opportunity to express them through training, competition and hardship does not forge champions. You don’t have to be born a “champion” to be a champion, but the highest form of human capacity often demands a genetic constitution that can deliver performance.
Opportunities to compete and to train with the best is often tied to financial ability, or more likely, sacrifice of familial income. Time away from family and a normal childhood is also the cost of opportunity to compete at the highest levels. Many professional and Olympic athletes report that they don’t realize what they miss in childhood until they retire.
Last but not least, is winning. This is the variable in sports competition which makes sports so exciting, because the best competitor is not always the winner of their event. But in order to be a professional or an Olympian, you need wins and podium finishes against your peers, and a drive to win can also drive individuals to unhealthy extremes like overtraining and illicit drug use.
Every kid should have an Olympic dream, and every kid should have a childhood, and every kid should have higher education. Youth sports teaches children and youth many valuable lessons along the way, and can open opportunities for furthering education. But the one thing that should never disappear from youth sports is FUN! Don’t let your kids leave their sport without a smile! It’s a good barometer for youth sports success.