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In sports recruiting, how young is too young?

Real Madrid has signed a 7-year-old soccer player from Argentina, who will begin training with the Spanish club’s youth squad in September. We asked Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society, a Northeastern University research center, to explain how parents, coaches and professional organizations can best safeguard the social and psychological development of a sports prodigy.

How young is too young to expose a talented athlete to elite play?
The question is more whether we, as a society, have pushed the envelope of professionalism so much that it threatens the joy and playfulness of youth. Sport in Society embraces sport as a vehicle for inclusion, healthy physical and cognitive development, and conflict resolution. Yet human development in sport is incremental and coincides in large part with the brain’s development. In boys, the frontal lobe—the area of the brain that governs good decision making—isn’t fully developed until the age of 25 or so. Against this backdrop, professionalizing sport down to age 7 seems both counterintuitive and counterproductive, and unhealthy for the child.

Some young athletes complain of burnout and quit playing their sport despite their unusual skills. What tips can you give coaches, parents and prodigies for keeping the game fun and dealing with the pressures of elite performance at a young age?
Everyone involved in youth sport should exhibit kindness, compassion and reason in their interactions with the athletes. We have to understand the value of youth sport not so much as a career path but as a developmental tool that can lead to positive social interactions and lessons in cooperation, healthy competition, conflict resolution and a healthy physical approach to life.

I would encourage coaches, parents and prodigies to use the platform of sport toward all these ends, seeking an enhancement of life chances and choices rather than big contracts and celebrity status. The reality is, fewer than one percent of high school athletes go on to play professional sports.

What role should officials in professional sports play in nurturing unusually young talent? What responsibility does an organization have when it signs, say, a 7-year-old phenom?
As does any institution that interacts with 7-year-olds, professional sports organizations need to provide a structure that includes educational support, a life-skills curriculum, mentoring, counseling and institutional safeguards that take into account young people’s extreme vulnerability. This structure should also include multiple outlets for self-exploration and development that acknowledge and provide remedies for the pressures young professional athletes routinely encounter.