Is Your Youth Athlete Killing Their Sports Career?

Popwarner PicYouth baseball player, Mo’ne Davis, created a media blizzard during this year’s Little League Word Series, which brought her story to my attention even though I didn’t tune in to watch a single game. A 13 year-old girl pitching a fierce, 70mph fastball while becoming the first girl to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history is an amazing story on several different levels.

I jumped on Youtube to see her in action. Beautiful pitching mechanics aside, she is ice on the mound – cool and focused. Mo’ne appears to be a cute, unassuming teenage girl, but there’s an assassin behind that veil. Before she pitched the shut out in the World Series game, she did the same to the opposition in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship. She’s a relentless yet poised competitor.

From my vantage point as a high performance coach, her backstory as an athlete is the most important story to tell America – a country that has lost its compass when it comes to youth athletic development due to sports specialization. The prevailing belief is that an adolescent has to choose one sport and play it all year long if they hope to excel and perhaps have a chance to earn a college scholarship down the line. Parents and youth coaches are both drinking this Kool-Aid and it is a damn shame.  I have included a few key points to help explain why I feel this way:

  • In a study of 1,200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictor of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
  • A 2013 American Medical Society of Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of the college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child. This is evidence that multi-sport athletes typically have longer athletic careers and gain greater athletic proficiency through the play of different sports throughout the year.
  • Children specializing in a single sport face far greater risk of stress, loss of social opportunities, burnout, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment from sport specialization.

Mo’ne is a three-sport athlete excelling in soccer, basketball and baseball. Well, then she must be “phenom” or a “natural” to achieve what she has in baseball, right?  In an interview with her basketball coach, Steve Bandura, he said, “she is not the greatest athlete, but a good athlete.” Huh? If that’s your response to coach Bandura’s comment, I understand, but it is not surprising to me.

Mo’ne greatest assets are her character, mindset and the kinesthetic intelligence (control of one’s body/coordination) that she developed by playing three different sports. She has challenged her athleticism in dynamic ways by jumping, sprinting, back pedaling, shuffling side-to-side, pitching, and dribbling with her hands (basketball) and with her feet (soccer).  Yes, Mo’ne is athletically inclined, but she gained advanced coordination and control of her body through the practice of the broad physical movements required by the three sports she plays competitively.

Beyond improving her hand-eye coordination, balance, agility, speed and quickness through multi-sport participation, she is greatly reducing her chance of an overuse injury by moving in a variety of athletic ways throughout the year. Doing the same mechanical body movements continuously year-round is problematic for the human body. Competitive long distance runners, as an example, are a high-risk population for suffering overuse injuries to their knees and feet. To address this risk, these athletes cross train by incorporating cycling, swimming, rowing and strength training within their workout programs.

The advantages of multi-sport participation are clear and highly supported by the best minds in sports medicine and sports psychology. I think as parents and coaches (well, most of us anyway) we want to build the best person and not just the best athlete – remember that. Studies have shown that multi-sport youth athletes perform better academically than their specialized counter parts, have better attendance records and even better leadership skills.

I’ve included some benchmarks below to help you understand the recommended progression for kids who want to specialize in one sport.

  • Prior to age 12 – kids should spend 80% of their time outside of their chosen sport.
  • Age 13-15 – split time between their chosen sport and other sports 50/50.
  • Age 16 and up – can safely spend 80% of their time in the chosen sport.

Michael Jordan played baseball and golf. He wasn’t the greatest baseball player or golfer, but he remains arguably the best basketball player to ever play the game.  Let’s do the right thing by our kids and encourage them to experience a variety of sports as we help to mold them into complete athletes and highly performing young people who excel socially and academically.

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One Response to Is Your Youth Athlete Killing Their Sports Career?

  1. Phyllis Rembaum says:

    Well-written…I agree with your point of view…makes sense…Erika has encouraged her children to participate in different sports…Michael (age9) has played basketball, baseball and football…presently his favorite sport is football. Shayna (age7) has played baseball but is now in gymnastics. She also wants to play soccer and basketball. In all these sports different muscles are used and being strengthened which make injury less likely to happen. A bonus to being part of a team sport is that you learn to be a team player, a valuable asset to success.

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