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Why Taking A Season Off Could Be What You're Missing

For baseball and softball players, fall can be an important time of year for college recruiting and/or to be seen by professional scouts. Often, fall is the third competitive season played after spring and summer seasons, which are separated by only a couple of weeks. A high school baseball player, who started playing in March, for example, has often played 45 to 60 games before starting an 18- to 20-game fall season, bringing the total number of games played to 65 to 80.

Softball teams also play as many games over the same period of time. The only difference is that the travel softball season can run from February thru July without a break until the start of the high school season in August. That's 60 to 80 games in a calendar year before you add in practices and travel that are also parts of the yearly softball schedule.

For a fully grown adult, playing 60 to 80 games per year would be considered a difficult schedule, let alone for young athletes who are in the midst of peak growth rates and other physiological changes affecting their physical, mental and emotional development. There's no wonder why many athletes who participate in this type of schedule get injured and/or are mentally burnt out in a short amount of time.

The potential risks of this type of schedule have not gone unnoticed by the medical profession. One of the World’s leading experts in sports medicine, Dr. Jim Andrews, Head of Andrews Institute of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, has said - “The increase in youth sports injuries is associated with two things. Number one is specialization, where they are playing one sport year-round. The other thing is treating kids like they are pro athletes. These two things together have increased this epidemic in youth sports.” (Read more here)

Many baseball and softball players are involved in year-round competitive sports schedules. They are getting a lot of competitive reps but some are sacrificing the physical development needed to endure high skill performance over long competitive seasons. This type of year-around schedule has been associated with an increased risk of injury, which in turn, can inhibit the ability to develop the skills needed to improve performance.

"What may work best for short-term progress can also undermine long-term development."

Collegiate athletes typically have three seasons; fall development, competitive season and an "optional" summer season. The major difference between youth/high school and college athletes is that most college athletes have reached physical maturity, and youth/high school athletes are still developing and maturing. Many college athletes also have access to professional strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers and dietitians throughout the school year. Few high school athletes have access to these resources during challenging schedules, travel and inconsistent playing conditions.

If history has shown us anything, it’s that the current state of athletics is not going to change the existing model. Tournaments and showcases are not going away. Therefore, it's going to be imperative that parents, coaches and health practitioners, educate and provide ways for athletes to balance sports schedules, physical development and competitive play in a manner that is healthier than the current norm.

One way that this can be accomplished is by athletes taking one season off each year instead of playing year-round. Playing no more than two consecutive seasons before taking a break, would reduce the number of games played and decrease the cumulative physical and mental stress associated with year-round competition. This would also allow adequate time for athletes to recover and participate in planned, performance training programs designed to reduce the risk of overuse injury, increase strength and improve skill development. While strength can and should continue to be developed throughout competitive seasons, it is extremely challenging to make significant gains during a competitive season. A 2- to 4-month off-season training block will enable athletes to develop the strength, speed and power needed for injury-free max performance.

Because multi-sport athletes are becoming few and far between, breaks have to be planned instead of occurring naturally with the start of a different sport season. (Read more about this topic in "Youth Gone Wild!") If you are high school baseball player, whose school season is in the spring, it would be advantageous to take the summer season off. Doing so would provide approximately 3 months for a developmental break between the spring and fall seasons, instead of the current two-week break between the spring and summer season. Not only would it provide adequate time to compete in the fall season stronger and more rested but this schedule would also align with the college baseball schedule. College teams play a short fall season separated by a winter training block before they begin the competitive spring season.

For athletes with extenuating circumstances like position changes or limited playing time, playing year-round may be warranted. In most cases, however, young athletes are spending too much time playing games and not getting enough time developing the physical and mental skills needed for long-term health and injury-free performance. The focus should change from year-round competition to long-term athletic development and it should start today!

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