(Lead Photo courtesy of Mike Nielsen)
On Facebook yesterday, I posted a comment about the three biggest issues I see in youth sports today.
- Early specialization,
- A poor approach to physical preparation, and
- A lack of long-term focus.
And it must’ve gotten some interest, because I even had my next door neighbor asking me questions about it!
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll examine each of these issues, but today I want to focus on early specialization.
Early specialization has at least three major issues:
- It allows athletes to accrue long-term overuse injuries earlier than they typically would,
- Athletes acquire fewer movement skills, and
- Drives early burnout.
Long-Term Overuse Injuries
Over the past two years, I’d bet I’ve evaluated at least half a dozen kids who have serious elbow issues from pitching, some of whom have already had Tommy John surgery.
And keep in mind, while we work with quite a few baseball players at IFAST, we aren’t like our good friends over at Cressey Performance who train 85-90% baseball players!
So this leads us to a simple question;
Why are more and more teenagers having Tommy John surgeries?
It’s easy – more and more kids are playing travel baseball when they are 6, 7 or 8 years old than ever before.
I’m going to throw a totally arbitrary number out there, but let’s say around 10,000 pitches an elbow starts to wear down a bit.
If you don’t start specializing in baseball until you’re 14, 15 or 16 years old, you may not hit that threshold until you’re in your 20’s. And if you aren’t a pro athlete, you may never hit that threshold!
On the other hand if you start pitching and specializing in baseball when you’re 5, 6 or 7 years old, now you might hit that threshold a full decade sooner.
When you play one sport repetitively, you overload and stress certain tissues.
If it’s an overhead sport, you’re going to stress the shoulders and elbows.
In basketball, it could be the knees, hips or ankles.
The bottom line is you can’t repetitively load or stress one joint or muscle group and not expect wear and tear.
At the very least, there needs to be time of use (i.e. the season), and times of stress reduction (the off-season), especially for a young athlete whose body is not yet prepared for the rigors of high-level sport.
Which leads me right into my next point.
Lack of Skill and Movement Development
Here’s another thing I’ve thought a lot about recently (that will simultaneously show my age):
Do you ever wonder why we rarely hear about the “three-sport athlete” these days?
Growing up, it was a badge of honor to be a three-sport athlete. If you were a guy that could letter in football, basketball and baseball?
But nowadays you rarely, if ever, hear about three sports athletes. In fact, I’m often beyond excited when a new kid I’m coaching or consulting work plays just one other sport in the off-season, let alone two.
Just like you overload certain tissues when you specialize early, you also limit how many movement skills you develop.
For example in golf you learn a very tight, specific motion. You get flexibility in certain areas, hand-eye coordination, etc.
In baseball you learn how to run in bursts (i.e. acceleration), throw the baseball, hand-eye coordination to catch and bat, etc.
In basketball you learn how to dribble with your hands, shoot, plant and cut to make space, etc.
In soccer you learn how to dribble with your feet, plant and cut, make longer runs, etc.
In other words, each sport can give you a bigger movement toolbox.
My thinking is that instead of building someone that is really good at Sport ________, I want to build a good athlete first.
Look at the picture on the right. While it’s typically geared towards learning functional movements like squatting, lunging, pushing up, etc., it can be applied to general athletic development as well.
The bigger the base of your pyramid, the more athletic skills you learn early on in your career, the bigger the potential top of your pyramid.
One last thought here – while we can go on and on about playing a lot of sports, a big part of this is making sure kids get what they need in gym class as well.
When growing up we rotated and learned a new sport every three to four weeks. In the fall we played soccer.
In the winter we played basketball.
In the spring we played baseball.
The bottom line is the more experiences we can provide our child from a movement perspective, the better they can and will move later on in life.
This may be the worst part of my job.
When an parent brings their kid in time and again to build their performance in a sport they lost interest in ages ago.
Kids are not mini-adults. While they may be focused, driven and passionate, make sure that they are the ones having those feelings – not you.
A kid may really enjoy their specific sport early-on, only to decide later on that they just aren’t as interested anymore. Or that other things have taken priority.
If I’ve learned one thing from my own children, it’s that things are never static. They are always fluid and changing.
Rotating sports throughout the year not only helps reduce the physical toll of stress on their body, but the mental and emotional stress of training and competition well. This simply can’t be overlooked.
When it comes to training young athletes, this is something I’m obviously very passionate about.
If you’d like to learn more about the issues when training young athletes, I’d encourage you to attend our Athletic Development Workshop on Tuesday, November 12th from 7:30-8:30 pm (registration link is on the right-hand column, or simply e-mail us at [email protected]).
I”ll be covering all of these items in more depth, and talking about specific strategies to make sure your kids not only get the most out of their physical and athletic development, but that we help them have an athletic, in-shape body that they can use for a lifetime.
All the best
BTW – we’re already getting people registered, so if you’re interested in attending please sign -up ASAP! The event is only $10, and all the proceeds to go support Hamilton County Community Tennis.