Parents, Are You Raising a Professional Youth Athlete?

It’s summertime! This is truly my favorite time of the year because I love the hot weather (except when I’m in Las Vegas), and it always reminds me that football season is coming up soon. I was a product of a father that played football and was a sprinter in track & field, so naturally, I followed in his footsteps starting at an early age.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, youth sports were available all year long. It started for me when I was 7-years old when I first started playing tee ball in the winter, and then at 8-years old, it was baseball, football, soccer, BMX racing, and track & field. This isn’t a pat myself on the back session here, but I will say that I was pretty good at all of them, fortunate to have played each one, and most importantly I loved playing all of them. However, we couldn’t keep up that schedule all year long.

By the age of eleven, I had eliminated baseball and soccer, which I later regretted quitting soccer because I excelled at it and it is still one of my favorite sports. I was good enough in fact, that I was the kicker and punter on all of my teams from pee wee through high school, and then was able to parlay my kicking skills as the backup all four years in college while starting as a defensive back. But more on that later.

Anyhow, I only quit soccer because it was interfering with football and I had to make a choice. My dad ultimately wanted me to play football, so I allowed him to influence me in that decision. I’m not mad about it by any means because I excelled at it, and it allowed me to play the game I loved all the way through college until I was 21-years old. However, it also allowed me to do other things that kids like to do, like continuing to run track, race my BMX bike, and eventually skateboard and road bike.

Looking back at my sports calendar template as a child made me realize that things are beginning to go terribly wrong in youth sports today, and only 25-years later. Today, we are seeing a surge in young athletes sticking to one sport by the time they reach age 10 or 11-years of age, and as a result of this, we are also seeing an increase in sports related injuries caused by overuse in both the upper and lower extremities.

A recent study conducted by The American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine took 1,544 high school athletes across various sports with about half being female and an average age of 16. They were asked to rate their level of specialization in a sport as Low/Medium/High for the 2015-16 school year. The athletes that classified themselves as moderately specialized had 50% higher incidence of LEI (Lower Extremity Injury), and those that were highly specialized had an 85% higher incidence.  Lead researcher, Timothy McGuine Phd., ATC, from the University of Wisconsin says, “Athletic associations, school administrators, coaches, and sports medicine providers need to better educate parents and their athletes on the increased chances of injury risk and provide more opportunities for diversified athletic play.”

So let’s be honest here, the kids in this study didn’t just start specializing as soon as they arrived on the high school campus. Many of them play on multiple clubs and recreational teams which don't allow time for young athletes to recover properly. Add in the multiple specialization camps for skill development within their sport, and now you have the recipe for overuse. What are the missing links?

1.      Strength Development

2.      Multi-directional Movement Development

3.      Rest

Ken Crenshaw, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks has addressed this phenomenon as well. His research finds that youth baseball players are 36x more likely to require surgery if they continue to throw while sore or injured. I’m still not sure where today’s parents learned that if their child shows signs of being gifted in a particular sport during their youth then they should get all of the reps possible until they turn pro or earn a scholarship. Now don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to the rule when it comes to specialization. Gymnasts and swimmers are different in scale as they do tend to show signs of benefiting from early specialization.

Like Ken Crenshaw says in his piece, the arm only has so many throws in it before it loses proper mechanics due to fatigue. But what about the movement? Movement skill and neuromuscular development matters when it comes to skill development for sporting activities. Balance, coordination, power, and strength all need to be implemented in a progressive manner as kids get older.

I would say that my love of BMX racing and skateboarding helped my balance, leg strength, and power output. The years playing soccer most definitely helped me become a kicker in football, and track & field and soccer helped me develop linear speed, deceleration, jumping and landing mechanics, and understanding angles for my skill positions in football. They are all transferable in their own unique way.

So what do you do if you and your child absolutely want to specialize early on during their youth? The first thing to do is create a calendar that allows your child to take time off, or limit their activity within the given sport. Physical adaptation requires that the body have a recovery period in order to obtain benefits from the previous stimulus. That doesn’t mean sit on the couch watching movies all day or playing video games. Playing in the back yard or at the park for fun? Sure, that’s different! But I’m talking about limiting their organized sport-specific calendar to allow rest and adaptation.

The next thing is to find a solid sports performance and strength development program focused on proper movement skill. This is completely different than a skills development camp for their sport, but a program that teaches them how to run faster, improve quickness when changing direction, decelerate efficiently and without injury, activate their core and hips for better balance and transferring power, improve mobility & flexibility, and overall strengthening.

Programs and clinics like these, which I run here at Lockdown Athletics and at Elevate Physical Therapy & Fitness, are built for both the in-season and out-of-season youth athlete. This long-term athletic development approach gives young athletes the ability to develop a unique body awareness that they may not get until they get to high school. The goal is to injury proof our kids while they are young so that they can play the sports they love freely and with more energy. Because as parents, it’s our job to protect our kids from injury as best we can.