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Youth Gone Wild!!

After almost a year removed from the 16 years spent as a strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball, my eyes have been opened! They've been opened to the many great things that I have missed over these years. Unfortunately, my eyes have also been opened to some things I wish they hadn't as well!

It was awesome to be at every one of our two young boy's little league baseball and flag football games. It was even greater to see their growth and development as athletes and young men on a daily basis. To see them learning how to deal with adversity and success in sports and in life, I am eternally grateful for. Hopefully these experiences will provide them with the tools to manage both life as an athlete but more importantly, apply these lessons and learnings to their lives outside of sports.​​

You may have notice I mentioned their little league baseball AND flag football games. That's because our kids have not been given the choice (yet), to play just one sport for multiple seasons. They are given the opportunity to play multiple sports during a calendar year. Currently they play basketball, baseball, soccer and flag football. While my wife and I are very blessed to be able to do this, it is also very much by design. As a long-time strength and conditioning coach with the knowledge and experience of seeing the pitfalls associated with early specialization in sports, we did not want our kids to experience that even though it worked against them at times. I've had the opportunity to see and work with some of the best athletes in the world, performing at the highest levels of their sport. Many of these athletes came with a variety of different athletic experiences, originating from all around the world. Anecdotally, most of them played multiple sports through their teenage years, with some not specializing in one sport until well into their late teens. Only a few specialized in just a single sport their entire career.

Seeing all these scenarios played out at the professional level, I believe in the philosophy of letting our kids play as many different sport as they can and/or have the desire to do so. There are tremendous benefits to identifying sports that kids enjoy playing and competing in. If kids are allowed to play multiple sports for as long as can, the benefits are so much greater for the total athlete than an environment where kids need to specialize in one sport at such a young age. Unfortunately as we are seeing, there is a lot of pressure for early sport specialization which is mainly created by a broken youth sports system that weighs financial gains over what is in the best interest of the child and their long-term physical, mental and athletic development.

Anyone who has knowledge and practical experience in strength & conditioning or coaching knows the role that genetics play in the success of individual athletes in their respective sports, especially as they advance to the higher levels of competition. Now, this isn't exactly what everyone wants to believe and certainly not what every parent wants to hear but is the hard truth! Most of us want to believe that through hard work and perseverance, you can play at the highest level in your sport. While that may still be an attainable goal for some, that's only become a reality if the athlete has the common physical characteristics that allow them to compete in that sport. It is completely realistic to say for example, that there will never be a 7 foot tall gymnast competing in the Olympics. Like most sports, gymnastics has a set of specific physical attributes that are required in order to develop the skills needed to have success in the sport. While long levers may be very advantageous for a basketball player they are not physical attributes that are well suited for someone competing in gymnastics.

So does this mean that we all should be lining-up our kids and screening them to see what sport they should be playing? Absolutely not! I believe that if allowed to occur, screening naturally happens when kids are are allowed to play multiple sports for many consecutive years and here is how. For example, we take the aforementioned 7 foot tall athlete. Say this young athlete grew up playing baseball, basketball and even competed as a parallel bars gymnast for many years prior to puberty. But then as he entered puberty, he had a tremendous growth spurt which literally grew him out of performing well in gymnastics and thus ending his competitive gymnastic career. By playing other sports the athlete was able to continue on to play baseball and basketball. It wasn't until he entered his peak growth rate which increased the level of success in basketball that dictated that he was best suited to specialize at that time. Now think about how often this may actually play out as a real-life scenario but instead of being a multi-sport youth athlete, the athlete was a single-sport athlete that chose the wrong sport and stoped playing around puberty. Who's to say that they may have been able to continue on with another sports if it were not for the adoption of this early specialization track?

Unfortunately, what I have seen this year has been examples of youth athletes who are playing one sport year round and is not a scenario like the multi-sport example I used. On top of not developing a well-rounded, adaptive athlete; the youth sports schedules that exist today can be at times, greater than what is being demanded of collegiate and professional athletes depending on the sport. Some youth baseball players are playing upwards of 100-120 games in a year not including practices and showcases, starting in many cases at the pre-pubescence age of 10-12 years old. This is an egregious stress put on an adolescence body prior and during the peak growth and development stage in their life. These sport demands are considered extremely challenging for an adult to tolerate, let alone youth athletes. Under these conditions, it shouldn't be surprising that so many kids are having surgeries and dealing with chronic overuse injuries.

With all that being said, nothing will change until parents and coaches become educated on these issues and are provided a responsible athlete development structure by sports governing bodies and other leadership. Many parents are pressured into having their kids play year-round in order to even have a chance to make a roster. This needs to change! Children need to have the opportunity to learn and develop within a responsible sport structure rather than be treated as collegiate or professional athletes. If we all want athletes to have a high quality of life well after sports, then changes to youth sports has to be made! The truth is most of these young athletes will never play at the collegiate or professional sports level. What they can do is to be given the opportunity to participate in many different sports which allows their abilities and passion to be shown over time. If this environment is created, you will find children and adults who are healthier, happier and more athletic. They may even enjoy participating in athletics for their entire lives and not just for a brief period of time during their youth!

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