Youth Sports Culture
Are young athletes being set up for success or failure?
The sun isn't yet up and the air has a fall chill to it as you breathe in the day. The rest of the household is still asleep, but out the door you go, into the violet-skied morning. A quick workout, maybe a stretching session if you have time before morning practice starts. The day is filled with workouts, practice, school, more practice, some sort of appointment or meeting. You find yourself stumbling to your room after the sun has set. An hour of homework and shoving some food into your body before you crawl into bed, setting your alarm for another early morning. Day after day, week after week.
Youth athletes are busier than ever before. The regular practices and school are no longer enough to stand out. Now, it seems, you must work with a trainer, possibly a physical therapist or masseuse, play on a school team for a season and a travel team the rest of the year. Your summers are filled with training and practice and games, maybe a job if you can fit it in. If you're lucky, your family can afford special coaches and trainers for different aspects of your sport- pitching, hitting, footwork, throwing, tackling, endurance.
In the past, the best athletes (and even the mediocre) played three sports. Their seasons followed the school calendar and they got a break during the summer months. Some athletes chose one or two sports, but spent their free seasons playing pick-up football games, riding bikes, just shooting hoops. There was more freedom and less structure. And they weren't overworking certain muscles and/or joints. They didn't need a physical therapist because they weren't tearing their ACL, developing imbalances in their pitching arms, and overworking their bodies at young ages. There was less stress on the youth and they had more opportunities to play, sometimes just for fun. Now, youth sports is in an age of specialization. The goals of which include getting a scholarship, playing on an elite college team, getting pick up by a professional team. Everything is sacrificed for that ultimate goal. But we forget that many of our greatest athletes didn't follow a single-sport track.
Tony Gonzales is probably best recognized as arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, but he was also a beast on the court playing basketball at Cal. In fact, he was such an incredible athlete, many other strong, tall basketball players made the switch to football (Jimmy Graham and Martellus Bennett among them). Russell Wilson, current quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, was originally drafted by the Baltimore Orioles following high school. Instead he went to college, played both football and baseball, was drafted into the MLB and played in the minor league for two seasons before starting his successful career in the NFL. Other successful multi-sport athletes include Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Danny Ainge, Jeff Samardzija, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Cris Carpenter, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Manny Pacquiao, and Lance Armstrong. There are more than enough examples in the sports world to suggest that multi-sport athletes can make it to their ultimate goals. In fact, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer have even been quoted as saying he will only recruit multi-sport athletes.
While there can be many benefits to sports specialization in youth athletes, it appears that multi-sport athletes have the competitive edge. It is suggested that multi-sport athletes will experience longer-term success. Youth athletes who play multiple sports (or even those who take extended breaks between seasons) experience fewer injuries, experience less pressure and tend to have lower levels of burnout. Practicing multiple sports can help young athletes enhance hand-eye coordination, improve balance and agility, boost endurance and even help athletes with teamwork and communication. Baseball works different muscles than basketball and basketball works different muscles than volleyball. We can go on and on, but the idea is that participating in multiple sports can reduce the chance of overuse injuries.
But this is what it comes down to. Are young athletes enjoying themselves? There is more to childhood than practices and games. There is more to high school than Friday night lights and weight rooms. When we focus our youth, so intensely, on one thing they miss out on so much more. And allowing kids to have fun, both in and outside of sports, can lead to great things. Take a look at superstar team the Golden State Warriors and their levels of fun and success. It's clear when professional athletes are enjoying themselves and they just play better. But watch an athlete who is focusing too much on one aspect. A batter who only wants to hit a home run will strike out nearly every time. Sometimes, to better our game and ourselves, we need to widen our focus.