As fresh-faced Georgia native Jordan Spieth strolled his way on to the 18th green at Augusta National on Sunday, April 12, commentator Jim Nantz declared in his distinctive drawl that Spieth might just be “the next Tiger Woods.” The comment seemed warranted. Spieth had put together a masterful 72 holes at Augusta National and held off the likes of Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, and even for a short while Woods himself. The crowds lining the 18th green cheered in jubilation as Spieth sunk his final putt and was crowned the 2015 Masters Champion. Youthful energy emanated from Spieth’s face as he hugged his caddy, mother, and beaming father. It was a touching sight with the boyish Spieth accepting hugs from his loving family. In that magical moment, Spieth embodied the youthful vitality that American sports fans have become increasingly obsessed with as of late.
It seems that everywhere you turn within the sports world, fans and pundits are eager to coronate the next brilliant talent that will revolutionize the sport. As sports fans we have become enthralled with the young and volatile. Johnny Manziel, for example, is an electrifying young talent that garners as much Sportscenter coverage as the likes of LeBron James. Whether a man who completed 18 passes in 2014 and has yet to throw an NFL touchdown deserves so much coverage is hardly up to discussion. We continue to eat it up, following Manziel’s every move. It probably has a lot to do with his magical 2012 and 2013 seasons at College Station. His frenetic and improvisational style is exciting to watch but will most likely not pan out at the professional level.
We love the youthful energy of players like Manziel and Spieth, but our obsession with youth permeates our youth sports leagues as well. Youth athletes are being forced to specialize in a single sport at a younger age than ever before. Many young teenagers see themselves involved in competitive travel teams before the age of 12. Furthermore, according to a report done by the University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative earlier this year, specialization is causing burnout and injuries among young athletes. We put a premium on youth, the pursuit of the spotlight, and possibly one day a shot to become a professional athlete.
All over the world, professional and collegiate sports organizations are searching for the next young talent. In late February, LeBron James publicly asked college coaches to stop recruiting his 10-year old son. When I was ten, I was certainly a lot more interested in watching cartoons and playing kickball in the cul-de-sac than fielding calls from Calipari and Boeheim. The fact that LeBron even needs to come out publicly and ask for these coaches to relax with the recruiting is absurd. It seems that there is such a vast amount of money to be made in sports now a days that it makes sense to search for talented 10-year olds to sign to your roster.
In soccer as well, clubs are looking to prepubescent players to form the foundations of their future teams. Real Madrid famously signed Leonel Angel Coira in 2011, when he was a mere nine years old. The fact that clubs scout talent at such a young age will certainly contribute to an increased intensity in competitive youth programs across the world. Why have your kid play all the sports when he or she can play just one year round and reap the benefits of a contract or scholarship later in life? This seems an interesting argument, but the possibility of burnout, overuse injuries, and general unhappiness would point towards more diversification in youth sports. By allowing our young athletes to play a variety of sports it is likely they will lead happier lives.
Stepping back from the issue and addressing this obsession with youth as a sports fan, it seems that youth does not always win out. With the NBA playoffs now fully underway, it seems that experience and seasoned veteran squads may be able to make one last stand against the onslaught of bouncy, athletic behemoths such as Blake Griffin. Perhaps I’m blinded by my undying love for the methodical fundamentals of Tim Duncan, but I believe strongly that the Spurs have one more run left in their creaky joints. Kawhi Leonard provides a youthful spark, but elder statesmen Parker, Ginobli, and Duncan still have the ability to make noise in the NBA playoffs. As the new age slowly dawns in the NBA it’s important that we don’t get swept up in the hype surrounding the “next big thing.” It’s often easier to believe in youthful exuberance, but a lot of sustained success in professional sports can be owed to experience and wisdom. Experience and wisdom, coincidentally, are two qualities that ooze out of every pore of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich.
Young athletes across all sports will continue to electrify and excite us all as they burst into the collective conscious of the American sports fan. However, it’s time we stop professing the second coming of the messiah every time a new young talent is discovered. This unfair media burden often creates disappointment and despair, a lesson readily available if one searches through the wreckage of careers such as Ryan Leaf, Greg Oden, and JaMarcus Russell. Especially in our youth sports systems, I hope that we can place less emphasis on specialization. We need to allow young athletes to focus on goals other than becoming the next Mia Hamm when they’re running around in the sunshine playing a game. Because at the end of the day it’s just that: a game.