Queen’s professor research hits the hardwood

Dr. Jean Côté helps to create youth guidelines for NBA and USA Basketball

Director Dr. Jean Côté has devoted his research to the field of sports psychology.
Director Dr. Jean Côté has devoted his research to the field of sports psychology.

It’s often believed that to be a successful athlete, you need to specialize early. But for every Tiger Woods, there are more stories of young athletes who burn out too early, leaving sport completely.

To combat this trend and keep kids playing, Director of the School of Kinesology and Health Studies and Queen’s professor Dr. Jean Côté’s research on the risk of sport specialization amongst young people has gained traction.

After working with major brands like the International Olympic Committee and the English Football Association, Dr. Côté’s research reached another international corporation — the NBA. 

Cote worked with the NBA’s Health and Wellness team to discuss the different guidelines and literature pertaining to the negative effects of early specialization. After six months, Dr. Côté helped to develop the first-ever youth basketball guidelines for the NBA and USA Basketball Youth Basketball Working Group.

In their most recent study, Côté and the rest of the Health and Wellness team advised athletes to delay single-sport specialization until at least 14 years old, and observe the results.

“The kids peak too early, and become very good at nine, 10 and 11 years old but they drop out,” he said. “If we want to develop better athletes, we need to go a little bit slower and give them an opportunity to experiment different sport and experience fun and they make the decision by themselves of what they want.”

According to his research, athletes that reach the highest level of achievement are more likely to have played multiple sports at a young age and delayed specialization until late adolescence.

At its core, Dr. Côté hopes to educate on two fronts — sample before you specialize, and play before you practice. 

“I think when kids drop out, it’s very often that they feel the pressure of adults pushing them to do something that they don’t want,” he said. “At the beginning it is fun, but later there is an entrapment and there is pressure.”

And while many kids aspire to the professional level, Dr. Côté believes that major brands don’t do enough to keep kids interested.

“Looking at these organizations, they are struggling in terms of guidelines, because kids drop out of sport, but there is research behind keeping kids in sports, and we need to act on them and put them out there.”

In the NBA, this is apparent. Both Stephen Curry and Lebron James — two of the game’s best players — played multiple sports in high school. 

While he considers his recent achievements a highlight for the year, basketball isn’t Côté’s favourite sport. He grew up a fan of hockey and the Montreal Canadians.

But for Dr. Côté, sport of any kind is an important teaching tool for society and life.

“It is a micro-environment for life,” Côté said. “You learn to lose, to win, to be with others, and respond to authority and keep score — all these things, it’s life.”

Over the course of his career, Dr. Côté’s research has come full circle. After focusing on coaching, he moved into the impact of parents and peers on youth athletes. Now focusing on the development of athletes, Dr. Côté wants to create a better environment for kids.

“We shouldn’t be focusing on the one percent of kids that make it professional. We should organize our youth sport system so that everyone can enjoy the rewards of doing sport, moving and physical activity, and then that one percent will happen.” 

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