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.