B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 5

Child’s Play?

How organized sports is taking the fun out of childhood.

By Mike Mejia CSCS

Things sure were different when we were kids. Not only did we actually play outside- a lost art in today’s technologically obsessed culture- we played just about everything imaginable. Whether it was football, stickball, shooting hoops, or even a simple game of tag, we were constantly bouncing around from one game to another. Ironically, this decidedly unstructured approach to physical activity served us quite well from a developmental standpoint. Instead of just honing in on one particular sport, we were actually working towards improving a wide array of athletic skills. As it turns out, this type of “multilateral” conditioning as experts term it, represents the optimal way for children to progress athletically. It’s also unfortunately, a far cry from the current mindset towards youth sports in our society.  

Due in large part to the hyper-competitive atmosphere that permeates today’s youth sports landscape, early specialization in a given sport is fast becoming the rule, rather than the exception. Whereas our organized sporting experience revolved around the idea of competitive seasons and left plenty of time for more spontaneous physical play, far too many of today’s young athletes devote the majority of the calendar year to either participating in, or preparing for a single sport! So much so in fact, that multi-sport athletes are quickly becoming a dying breed, as well-meaning coaches and parents often steer children towards the first sport they demonstrate any type of proficiency for. These days, athletes as young as 10 years-old are routinely placed on travel teams, given private coaching lessons and attend specialized camps and clinics. Besides increasing the chances of early burnout and failing to optimize overall athletic development, early specialization is causing many of these kids to fall victim to the types of overuse injuries that used to be reserved for collegiate and professional level competitors. In fact, of the nearly two million youth sports injuries that occur nationwide each year, a staggering 30-50% are attributed to overuse- with the majority of those occurring amongst the 5-14 year age group.

As if a nearly year-round emphasis on a single sport with it’s inherent overuse of specific muscles and movement patterns, weren’t enough wear and tear on developing young bodies, recent years have also seen a dramatic increase in the demand for “sports-specific” conditioning for young athletes. Virtually unheard of a decade ago, parents are now hiring personal trainers to work with their children, or signing them up at specialized sports performance facilities at an unbelievable rate. According to a recent New York Times article, Velocity- a sports performance chain with more than 75 locations nationwide- had an estimated 47,000 children participate in their programs in 2006. That’s over four times the enrollment they had in 2004! Even smaller, lesser-known facilities like CATZ (Competitive Athletes Training Zone) and Athletic Republic are experiencing similar growth rates. Yet, despite all of it’s perceived benefits, it’s important to point out that sports-specific training can easily do as much harm as it can good- especially when said training gets too specific, too soon.

Not that I’ve got anything against kids training to increase their strength, speed and stamina in an effort to improve their overall athleticism. As a strength and conditioning specialist who works almost exclusively with children age 10-17, I fully appreciate the potential value that training has to offer this population. Problems arise, however, when said training is not of an age-appropriate nature (i.e. 9 & 10 year olds have vastly different needs and therefore should not replicate the training programs of 14 year-olds, just as 14 year-olds shouldn’t be expected to do the same types of drills as 17 year-olds) and when the primary objective of that training is geared more towards performance related outcomes like a faster 40-yard dash, or higher vertical jump and not on improving things like total body strength and movement efficiency. The ironic part is, by simply focusing on the latter, not only do we better serve a child’s long term physical development, but improved performance usually manifests itself as a byproduct.

The bottom line is that, children, regardless of how gifted they may be athletically, should not be treated like miniature adults when it comes to fitness training. They should not be encouraged to focus their efforts on the same muscles and movement patterns they’re already overusing in their sport. Nor should they be rushed into advanced forms of training that their bodies aren’t ready for until the proper physical foundation has been built. And yet, this is exactly what’s going on in a startling number of youth sports conditioning programs across this country. I see it all the time; from the introduction of plyometric exercises (explosive jump training) at too early an age, to a failure to stress proper biomechanics during both strength training and running drills. With overuse injuries from organized sports participation already at unprecedented levels, the last thing we need to do is compound this with more specialized training rather than stressing the need to build stronger, more resilient young bodies.

As coaches and parents it’s our job to help promote a healthier, more enjoyable sports experience for our children and not necessarily one aimed at athletic greatness. Subjecting young athletes to endless hours of practice, countless competitions, specialized training and a lifestyle that leaves time for little else, is doing them a tremendous disservice. Encourage your kids to get involved with more than one sport- even if some of that participation is on a purely recreational level. And, if they do express a desire to exercise, make sure it’s geared towards enhancing health and well being and not necessarily the mastery of any specific sports skill. This will lessen their likelihood of eventual burnout and promote more balanced physical development. Don’t worry, once they’re in their later teens and their bodies are more physically mature, there’ll be plenty of time for them to specialize in their sport of choice. Until then, how about we just let kids, be kids.

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