Battling the Early Deterioration of The Single Sport Athlete
In my last blog post I got into the topic of early sport specialization and the detrimental effect that it has on the development of young athletes. As the post made it’s way around the internet people either agreed with the idea or thought that it was a ludicrous concept and that kids needed to spend as much time as possible practicing their respective sport. The latter, oddly enough, generally seemed to be people who stood to make a profit off of training the kids for a specific sport.
Shortly after the blog post hit the Internet, another hall of fame athlete, John Smoltz, weighed in on the topic in his induction speech. He made it very clear that he feels that we are ruining young athletes and seeing so many surgeries in baseball players because of the fact that kids are throwing like it’s a full time job when they’re in Little League. As far as I’m concerned he was right on and echoed a sentiment that I believe many parents have feared for some time. However, that fear is often ignored by parents because they are being told by someone who makes a living coaching their child’s sport of choice that their kid needs more practice. But the question is, are those extra lessons really necessary? Or even beneficial?
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old, that you have time, that baseball’s not a year‑round sport, that you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses (tell you) that this is the way. We have such great, dynamic arms in our game that it’s a shame that we’re having one and two and three Tommy John recipients. So I want to encourage you if nothing else, know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside; they don’t have fun; they don’t throw enough. But they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems. So please, take care of those great future arms.” – John Smoltz
In a time when we have higher levels of physical inactivity than ever, and are cutting back on gym classes and free play, some children are being pushed in the opposite direction. Unfortunately many of these children are being pushed in a misguided direction due to bad advice being doled out to their parents. While they should be doing the things that many of us did in gym class and on the playground when we were kids, the few active children out there now are just playing the same sport every day. There is no tag, no manhunt, no dodge ball, no free play, no variation in movement skills. They’re lacking the variety in activities that would allow them to develop physical skills properly.
In my research on the subject I came across a great website that I highly recommend checking out at some point. The site, www.changingthegameproject.com is on a mission to educate the public on the downfalls of getting too serious about a specific sport too early on. The authors want to return youth sports to what they’re supposed to be, fun. In one of their articles, Is It Wise to Specialize, they make light of the statistical risks that we put children at with early sport specialization.
Those risks include injury rates as much as 93% higher than those who play multiple sports, burnout due to stress, lack of enjoyment, and higher rates of adult physical inactivity.
While many parents are told, and believe, that they are putting their children ahead of the curve by having them play one sport year round, they are more likely doing their children a disservice by doing so.
So what do you do if your child is one of those who is already specializing in one sport before the age of 16? Well it’s not too late to get them playing something else at least one or two seasons out of the year. Another option that can be helpful is to get them involved in a well-designed strength and conditioning program. A solid strength and conditioning program will not only make a young athlete stronger and faster, but more importantly increase their overall level of athleticism and reduce injury risk. A well-rounded program should be considered more of a “sports training” or “sports performance” program rather than just a strength and conditioning program. Now obviously as a strength coach myself, it’s easy for me to tell you that this is what your child is missing, but that’s because I’ve seen what it does for athletes over and over again, regardless of how skilled they are before it’s implementation.
If a sports training program is properly implemented the benefits are unparalleled. We’re not talking about just lifting weights. That is clearly a very important part of a good sports training program, but it’s not everything. A well-rounded program should also go over movement skills, work on footwork and agility, and even incorporate some work on balance. All of these factors, combined with the benefits of weight training help to create a well-rounded athlete regardless of sport. While these practices don’t work on a sport specific skill, one thing that they do accomplish is that they increase one’s level of proprioception and kinesthetic awareness.
Increasing an athlete’s proprioception and kinesthetic awareness means that you have given them a better understanding of their body, what it’s parts are doing in relation to each other, and in relation to the surrounding space. In simpler terms, you’re improving the qualities that make up co-ordination. Regardless of the skill that an athlete needs to improve on specifically, it certainly helps to be more coordinated in order to help make adjustments to that skill set.
When we test our athletes we always expect to see their numbers improve, but the test that they improve in the most doesn’t have any numbers associated with it. It’s the eye test.
The eye test is something that all coaches use as an assessment tool and have used since the beginning of sports. The difference that you see in the fluidity of movement skills and the ease with which athlete’s move after training for a few months versus before is something that you need to witness to believe. It is nothing short of incredible when you realize what kind of adjustments the body is capable of when it is required to make them.
So does this mean that your child needs to get involved in a sports training program? No absolutely not, however that fact that every Professional and Division 1 college team has one should speak volumes to their effectiveness. But the main thing that they need to do is something other than their primary sport. They need to move differently and take their mind off of the one sport that consumes their life at too early of an age. They need to have fun and enjoy what they do. And if you can improve their performance at the same time why wouldn’t you?
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Steve Zarriello B.S., CSCS, TPI Certified is the Co-Founder of The Way HPI located in Cranston, R.I. He has been training people of all ages, ability levels, and training goals for almost 10 years.