It’s no secret that Youth Sports are now more competitive than ever. This pressure to perform at a young age is pushing kids into Early Sport Specialization, where young athletes are encouraged to focus all their energy into one sport early in their athletic careers. This pressure to become a mini Michael Jordan or John Welbourn can come from parents, coaches, colleges, and even their peers, and is often rooted in the hope of financial reward, scholarship opportunities, and overall social status (Merkel, 2013, p.5).
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend sport specialization before the age of 13. Let me repeat that for the people in the back: sport specialization is not recommended BEFORE THE AGE OF 13. Yet, these kids are now playing the same sport year-round, on multiple teams, and often having less than 2 months of rest throughout the year. It’s no surprise that such a demanding schedule can cause overuse injuries, overtraining, and ultimately burnout, resulting in nearly 80% of children no longer competing in sports by the age of 15 (Merkel, 2013, p.1).
Additionally, because they are spending so much time on the field, many athletes have not spent enough time in the weight room developing the strength they need to handle the demands of their sport.
In this article, I’d like to identify some of the key problems resulting from early sport specialization, and provide you with some steps you can take as a parent or coach to attack these problems before they sideline your athletes for the long haul.
A Mindset Shift
Everything starts in the mind. Your values as a parent or coach will inevitably drive your actions, as well as your reactions, towards your kids and athletes. Unrealistic expectations from parents and coaches can and will place high levels of stress and anxiety on a young athlete. If you’ve been to any little league game recently, I’m sure you’ve seen the overzealous parent screaming at their 11 year-old kid to do better during. If you haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing that yet, then perhaps you’ve seen a coach yelling derogatory comments to a young athlete upon making a mistake during a big game.
Parents and coaches, we simply have to do better. The first step towards improvement is discovering the root of these toxic behaviors. Emphasizing winning over everything. Pushing for a college scholarship before these kids even know how to send an email. Is this really what we think is best for developing these young athletes?
The unfortunate reality is that 98% of youth athletes will never compete at the highest level (Merkel, 2013, p.5). What if instead, we put more emphasis on character development, teamwork, learning to overcome obstacles and the overall pure enjoyment of the sport?
I guarantee a team that knows how to work together, work hard, and have fun will be more successful than a team full of athletes afraid to make mistakes.
Taken to the extreme, forcing an overemphasis on performance outcomes can also lead the athlete to quit the sport altogether due to burnout from the constant stress, or simply losing enjoyment in something they once loved to do.
We would all do well to remember the main purpose for youth participation in sports is fun. Yes, FUN. Not winning, not to get early game tape, and not for scouts to come watch. While lifelong lessons can be learned playing the sport, lifelong scars can also be created if we as coaches and parents lead with the wrong mindset.
Parents, you can lead from the front here by placing emphasis on values such as hard work, character development and an enjoyment of physical activity.
Coaches, you may have to have some hard conversations with parents about this topic. Ensure that when you communicate with the parents you have their child’s long term development in mind. Remind them that more isn’t always better.
Mitigating Overuse Injuries
At least half of all injuries sustained by young athletes are due to overuse (Merkel, 2013, p.4). Sadly, this type of injury is the most preventable.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids should not practice an organized sport for more hours per week than their age in years. For example, a 12 year old should not practice or play one specific sport for more than 12 hours each week. But here’s the catch: this also includes skill-specific training for that sport. That means those extra reps after practice or on the weekends to “hone your skill” might be doing more harm than good in the long run. It’s no surprise that the ones that ignore this and push the limit are more likely to experience injury. Going beyond extra reps, it’s also recommended that an athlete play the same sport no more than 8 months out of the year (Merkel, 2013, p.5). What does that mean? Maybe fall soccer to winter ball to spring soccer to summer club isn’t the best idea.
As an informed coach, it’s important to relay this information to the parents while demonstrating that you care for the athlete’s long term development more than their short term performance gains. On the flip side as an informed parent, it’s important to recognize how much is too much and not push the bounds out of fear of falling behind.
One estimate places the amount of formally trained high school coaches at less than 8%. That means less than 8% have no idea on the appropriate volume and intensity doses for young athletes. There’s a good chance they are just doing what their coaches did with them back in the day (look up and the bar will go up, anyone?). The majority are untrained in strength and conditioning principles for young athletes, first aid treatment and emergency management of sport injuries (Merkel, 2013, p.6).
Armed with this knowledge, parents and coaches can now take ownership over making sure their athletes are not overplaying.
Strength Coach to the Rescue
Studies of the organized sport programs run by the Soviet Union show athletic advantages from sport diversification rather than specialization (Merkel, 2013, p. 5). Athletes that play multiple sports until the age of 12 actually have an easier time learning skills specific to the sport they most want to excel in. Speed, agility, strength, power, and quick decision making are traits needed to succeed across most sports. By developing these, an athlete has a better foundation to pull from and can learn sport specific skills easier.
Cue the strength coach…
Many of the negative side effects of sport specialization can be mitigated with appropriate rest and by engaging in a program that develops general physical traits. The Strength and Conditioning Professional specializes in helping athletes develop these traits.
Getting your athlete into a program that will help develop these physical qualities can help keep him/her safer on the field/court, increase performance outcomes, decrease burnout and improve confidence.
Finding the Right Coach
Setting a teenage athlete free in the weight room with no guidance is asking for trouble. Lifting for the sake of lifting is very different from lifting for athleticism. Finding a professional to work with is key to a young athlete finding success in the weight room.
A coach with a weekend certification won’t cut it here. The reality is, many of the personal trainers out there fall in this category. Don’t fall for the flashy drills and claims of “sport specific training.” Aim to find a qualified coach who has a formal education in the field and experience working with young athletes.
Empower the Next Generation
Whether you are a parent or a coach, it is important that you view yourself as a stakeholder in your athlete’s career AND character development. Below are some points for you to create a course correction in the future of youth sports.
- Encourage overall development of the athlete more than outcome goals
- Ensure the athlete plays the same sport no more than 8 months out of the year (Merkel, 2013,p.5)
- Allow for 1-2 rest days per week from the sport (Merkel, 2013,p.5)
- Play multiple sports and/or participate in a strength training program year round.
- Set realistic expectations and goals for the athlete.
- Ensure the athlete is engaged in a Strength & Conditioning program with a professional year-round and has adequate time away from the sport.
Still not quite sure where to get started? Head on over to the Power Athlete academy and enroll TODAY in the Power Athlete Methodology course to start sharpening your blade and learning all the ways you can unlock your child’s athletic potential.
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Merkel D. L. (2013). Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open access journal of sports medicine, 4, 151–160. https://doi.org/10.2147/OAJSM.S33556
Alex owns and operates APG Strength & Conditioning, a private training facility dedicated to youth athletic performance in Hendersonville, TN. She has been coaching youth athletes and adults since 2014. Alex was a multisport athlete growing up playing soccer, basketball, golf and running track. She continued her athletic career playing soccer at Carson Newman University, where she earned a B.S. in Exercise Science. She has also earned the NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist Certification, NSPA CSAC and Power Athlete Block One. Alex hopes to influence the next generation of athletes to reach their fullest potential on and off the playing field.
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