There’s a lot of pressure on athletes to play one sport year round – how does that impact their athletic development?
By Colby Schreckengost
(This article was recently published in the Haymarket Lifestyle Magazine)
Recently a parent explained to me that she really wanted her 9 year old daughter to train with us, but her schedule would not leave time for it. She went on to talk about the year-round practices and travel tournaments coupled with studies would not allow for any extra training. I agreed with her.
But as she left the facility, I chuckled to myself and thought: “When I was 9, I played little league baseball in the spring, pick-up football games in the fall, street hockey in the winter and mixed in some kick the can or Frisbee games when the neighborhood gang would get together.”
Things are different now…..but are they necessarily better?
As a parent, do you ever feel like your child is being pushed into specializing in one sport at the age of 9 or 10? Or, are you thinking it would be a good idea for your child “focus” on just one sport? Have you asked yourself if it’s good for him or her to specialize at such a young age?
Let’s think back to when we were kids. Like most kids, we got involved in sports for a variety of reasons: some of you because your parents made you, some because you aspired to be like athletes you saw on TV, but most of us, we did it for the fun and camaraderie. Is that different than why your kids got involved in sports? Let’s face it; today it’s more competitive; there’s a travel or club team for just about every sport. So naturally, some kids want to be part of that because the social influence of the child’s peer group makes them want to join a team, and for others it’s the competitive nature of the young athletes. Youth sports have evolved over time, and I’m a big proponent of them for various reasons:
1. Teaches kids how to overcome adversity like coming back from a loss or getting cut from a team.
2. Teaches young people how to work cooperatively within the structure of a team and how to become a team player.
3. Helps youngsters acquire coordination and sport skills.
4. Helps them learn to be competitive which is a “real world” asset.
But, at what level of their sport should your child be playing? Will being on that team (or teams in many cases) interfere with things like family, faith, education, relaxation or just plain fun?
Let’s take a look at the different levels of youth sports.
- Recreational Sports: This is a great place to try a sport and a great place for fun. In “rec sports” the coaches are donating their time and in most cases their son or daughter plays on the team. The players are usually guaranteed playing time during games and are expected be at team practices and ready to play in games. The games are all played at local fields.
- Travel Team Sports: Kids at this level must try out to make these teams. There is a much higher financial burden associated with travel teams in order to cover the cost of more highly qualified coaches, uniforms, skills training and team tournament entry fees. At this level, many coaches expect a year-round commitment and sometimes often at the player’s expense of not being allowed to play for their high school team or get involved in other sports. And, even with this level of financial and time commitment, playing time is not guaranteed.
- School Team Sports: Depending on the school districts there may or may not be cost associated with playing for your school. Coaches are typically competent, but some may get the position by default or because they want to earn extra compensation. However the amount of money can be fairly insignificant compared to the hours required to do the job. Player commitment is generally seasonal, with some coaches encouraging or requiring pre-season training. Depending on the size and level of the school, some kids may not get a spot on the team, or may make the team but never get in a game.
As a parent, the goals for your child’s athletic development may vary. But keep in mind that if you want your child to make the top travel team or become a star by age 12, then you might want to specialize. However, sport specialization is a short-term solution that often leaves parents, and the player, wishing they had taken a different path.
If you’re taking the long view (which professional coaches and sports medicine specialists recommend) and looking to maximize athletic development during the ages of 17-20 (late teens) then specialization should hold off until age 16 or sophomore year in high school.
Below is some of the evidence against youth sports specialization:
- A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences last year looked directly at the youth sports specialization issue. The study found that young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one sport at the ages of 11, 13, and 15.
- In another study, from 2012, also published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport.
The reason is that athletes participating in more than one sport are exposed to a greater number of physical, mental and social environments than athletes participating in one sport only. These physical and mental skills developed during their adolescent years will help them be successful during their late teen and college years.
College recruiters and coaches support the science. “These guys (multi-sport athletes) have a high level of athleticism but probably haven’t peaked yet as lacrosse players,” said Chris Bates, head lacrosse coach at Princeton. “Once they get to college, they will specialize and will develop and blossom. They usually have a steep growth curve, whereas some of the kids who have been single-sport athletes tend to burn out quicker. Oftentimes, they don’t have as much left in the tank.”
Certainly, there are a few benefits to your young athlete specializing in one sport during adolescence, but there are far more positives for playing multiple sports.
Either way, the one sure way to maximize athletic potential and reduce the risk of injury is through involving your athlete in a structured, professionally led strength and conditioning program. Thankfully, coaches and parents are recognizing the benefits of strength and conditioning and as a result elite level travel teams are now coming to Next Level for offseason and preseason training. There are always inherent risks involved in sports, and whether your child is playing on a rec, travel or high school team, solid strength training and performance enhancing drills should be scheduled as a part of their year. The benefits of these programs include:
- The athlete becomes stronger and better able to outlast their opponents.
- The athlete becomes more aware of their body and the need to properly fuel it.
- The athlete becomes more confident, on and off the field.
- The athlete becomes faster, develops quicker reaction time and can rapidly respond to changes in the game.
- The athlete has a lower risk of injury.
- The athlete will improve on weaknesses that they think can be overcome with skill enhancement but really can’t.
- The athlete becomes more powerful and explosive. (running, jumping, and change of direction)
- The athlete develops good training habits that will last him or her well beyond his athletic career!
Keep in mind the goals that you have for your young athletes as you consider enrolling them in the different levels of youth sports. If they specialize as adolescents, they might miss out on a sport that they might love. Don’t over schedule them and for sure leave time for them to be kids!!
Colby Schreckengost is owner/director of training at Next Level Fitness & Performance in Haymarket, VA. Next Level trains over 350 adult clients and well over 500 athletes per year from beginners to professionals. Colby holds a BS and MS and is a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Tulsa. He is a certified personal trainer and Sports Nutritionist. He also holds certifications with the Titleist Performance Institute and is a certified Functional Movement Screen Specialist. Next Level specializes in Sports Performance for Athletes and Life-Changing Body Transformations for Adults. For more information on getting started at Next Level, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-754-0161.