Friday, May 9, 2014

Year-Round Single Sport Specialization: Not Good for Kids or Skill Development, Experts Say

Experts today—ranging from sports researchers and sports psychologists to doctors, ex-pros, general managers of professional teams, and Division I college coaches—are all expressing the same theme: year-round, single sport specialization, and its accompanying professionalism, is not good for the kids.

More significant, contrary to what most youth coaches and parents seem to think, the year-round specialization does not produce better skill than that of those who take time off from the sport to rest and to learn, and compete in, other sports.

The recommendations for rest and multi-sport experiences are not just being made for 8- or 10-, or 12-year-olds. They are being recommended for athletes playing well into high school.

Dr. James Andrews (1, 2, 3), 40-year sports medicine orthopedist, surgeon to both pros and, as he puts it, far too many 13- and 14-year-olds, makes the strongest case against specialization and professionalism—because he sees the shredded cartilage, ligaments, and tendons on his operating table every day. Some of the youth are as young as 12.

The cause is overuse due to practice and game schedules designed for 25-year-old professional athletes, not 12-, 14-, and 16-year-old amateurs. The young body, he says, was just not made for that kind of punishment. Dr. Andrews’ recommendation? “At least two months off each year to recover from a specific sport. Preferably, three to four months.”

Another orthopedist has said that whenever athletes feel aches, pain, or fatigue, they should stop practice or play, because that is when injuries occur. The doctor then added, “These kids aren’t on multi-million dollar contracts!”

ESPN The Magazine recently sponsored a study showing that the kids who participate in year-round sports enjoy every minute of it. After all, they are the center of attention and treated like pros-in-the-making. They get to travel, stay in hotels, and, of course, do not have to pay!

But is this good for the kids, Eddie Matz, the article’s author asks? Or is it ruining their childhoods?

Kids love tons of sugar, says sports psychologist Kristen Dieffenbach, but an excess of sweets is not good for them. Likewise, the year-round regimen of youth sports is not good for the kids’ long-term development.

The mantra of travel and club sports is that year-round specialization is necessary to get to the next level. But is it, asks Matz?

General managers of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Raptors say that multiple sports experiences in high school make better athletes and teammates, as well as produce fewer injuries and less burnout.

John Savage, head coach of the world-series winning UCLA baseball team, says, “We like ‘em cross trained. Stick with multiple sports as long as you possibly can, and people are going to see your tools.” Matz then follows up with this line: “Stick with one sport long enough, and people are going to see your scars.”

Five college lacrosse coaches echo the importance of multiple sports experiences through high school to produce better athletes and teammates. An informal survey of National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) members also speaks to the benefits of multi-sports experiences.

Ex-pros have weighed in on the subject. Wayne Gretzky (1, 2, 3), Cal Ripken, Jr. (1, 2), and Bobby Orr (1, 2) say that creativity and experimentation are lacking in today’s college and professional athletes. They say this is due to specialization and the absence of free play.

Gretzky and Orr played baseball in their off-seasons and Ripken attributes his success at shortstop to the footwork he learned in high school soccer. The ponds, sandlots, and streets of yesteryear—where no adults were to be found—gave kids the freedom to experiment, to try out something new and different. This, of course, is no longer allowed in today’s adult dominated, adult controlled organized youth sports.

Tommy John says the current major league epidemic of surgeries in his name is “unreal” and “crazy.” The cause, he points out, is not overpitching in the big leagues, but a buildup of overuse as a kid, especially pitching year round. And he calls it a racket the way organized youth sports today is run, hyping scholarships and better performance to parents so they will spend increasingly more money (1, 2).

John then goes on to say that Justin Verlander is probably one of the best pitchers today in the major leagues. So he asks parents who force their kids into year-round play, “You think Justin Verlander plays baseball year-round?” The answer is a big “no.”

What does sports research (1, 2) say? Professional athletes who enjoyed plenty of free play in their younger years and participated in multiple sports show better perception, decision making, and pattern recognition than their single sport, organized and controlled counterparts. In one study these characteristics differentiated the super elite of professional athletes from the mere elite.

Most today acknowledge the importance of free play in their development as young athletes, but nearly all assume that that is a bygone era, never to return.

Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and youth sports reform advocate, says otherwise. Bigelow suggests that coaches today should periodically drop their sports equipment off at the various facilities, then disappear for two or three hours. Their instructions to the kids should be, “Just go out and play.” The kids, he says, will know what to do with the equipment!

Bigelow is not known for mincing his words about organized youth sports—he describes travel and club sports as a “caste system.”

He also has said this about adult involvement in the present world of young people’s recreation: “Parental egos and a full tank of gas—a frightening combination.”

Note on softball. Dr. Andrews, in his book Any Given Monday, discusses the health concerns of twenty-eight of the most popular youth sports, including cheerleading, which he says is “out of control” from the perspective of health, and dance. Here are a few comments about fastpitch softball.

“Unfortunately, softball lags behind all other youth sports in injury rate recognition and preventative safety rules. There have been very few rules regulating softball at any level and, as a result, softball injuries in young athletes are on the rise and are nearly as prevalent as baseball injuries.” This includes tears in the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow, the ligament that gets replaced with Tommy John surgery.

“These young women,” Andrews concludes, “need to be protected for the sake of their long-term health, not just for their team’s win-loss record.”

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