“What people don’t understand is this: all new movements are developed on the basis of old reflective driving lengths. The greater the stock or pull of old reflective driving lengths, the greater the motor abilities developed. You know what I just said? Have your kid play multiple sports. Expose him to multiple movement patterns. Create a better athlete.”
– Coach Buddy Morris Arizona Cardinals Head Physical Preparation Coach
Youth sports have changed drastically in the last few decades, mostly because of the advent of club teams. Traditionally, junior high and high school athletes played multiple sports, all conducted through their school. Each calendar season featured a fresh one or two sports as options. Kids were encouraged to try new sports, and while only the talented kids were top players in all their sports, many kids found they could excel at for instance football, and still play a solid role for the basketball team a month later. Multiple sports meant an array of different teammates and friendships throughout their youth, as well as different coaches. Athletically kids faced regular new challenges in both the technical (skill) and tactical (strategy) aspects of that season’s sport. Once high school concluded, those gifted enough, or had worked hard enough, moved on to college and specialty in one sport. The elite of that became the minute percentile that are known as pro athletes.
However, with the explosion of club teams in the early 2000’s, sport was now out of school affiliation and into the hands of the club coach. Not surprisingly, considering it’s often their coaches lone source of income, club teams provided tournament, lesson and practice schedules that encompassed nearly the entire year. And as people naturally gravitate towards what they’re good at, many kids enjoyed getting to play their best sport year round, instead of only getting to play it for part of the year, and then being a role player in another sport. And so the year round youth athlete was born.
For those embarking on the early year round specialization quest things initially do seem good; parents note that their kid “loves it so much”, “loves the grind”, and couldn’t be happier. Parents are also pleased to discover that if young Johnny is even physically equal to his peers, he’ll dominate at the low levels, as he is often way ahead of his peers in skill acquisition. All manner of all star awards, tournament MVP’s and various club ball accolades are accrued. Though the athlete is still only a boy, the march to the pro ranks of their sport seems inevitable.
Of course for the vast majority the fall from there is swift. Whereas formerly year round specialization commenced with a physically mature, post puberty 18 year old college student, it is now physically immature 8-16 year old’s logging excessive hours of the exact same movement patterns, day after day, week after week, year after year. Not surprisingly, injuries skyrocket, and all manners of overuse injuries begin to plague kids. Elbows and shoulders begin to hurt; hips and feet also struggle to endure the repetitive stress. Equally as troublesome is the mental burnout that comes along with it. Prior, a pro athlete hit the professional ranks with often as little as 3-4 years of one sport specialization; now kids were expected to survive to the professional ranks with often as much as 15 years of specialization or more. Kids now quit sports altogether both earlier and often than any other generation.
For those who don’t quit, many become the zombies of sport; their joy lost long ago, working on their game on their own feels like drudgery and they avoid it all costs. Domineered by one coach year round (or Dad), they invent any way possible to escape having to play in their next tournament or summer ball obligation. Better as a high school junior than they are now as a college junior, they play out the string, but too often, while dealing with injury and disgust towards the game they once enjoyed so much as a boy.
It’s a sad, frustrating development in youth sports, but with so many adults now reliant financially on kid’s faithful year round participation in their specific club sport, the model is not changing whatsoever anytime soon, and undoubtedly will only get worse. The only thing that can be done is for kids and parents to start making smarter, less short sighted decisions. I’ve been involved heavily with youth sport for now 12 years. And I know johnny really likes this one sport so much right now. And I know his club coach says he’s special and needs to be playing in all the tournaments possible against all the other elite 11 year old’s, and I know he’s having so much fun right now and all he wants is to win the November 11U Elite division Backyard Brawl Championship. But my strong advice from seeing so many “special” 11 year old’s turn into bitter 19 year old’s, is to play another sport. Try out something new. You can still play your favorite, but try something new as well. “But I wont be good at it!” I tell them that’s ok. It’s okay to be a role player. There will be no Instagram headlines about how you’re poor at soccer compared to baseball. Just play and have fun; after all, isn’t that why you started playing sports in the first place?