Saturday, March 8, 2014

Missing: The Great American Athlete...

Youth sports have become big business and if we aren’t careful it can take over our lives. The cost of participation in Elite, Select or Travel sports goes beyond the significant financial and time commitments… The price of early and excessive participation can also take quite a toll on children physically.

Children who participate in one sport from a young age are more prone to over-use injuries that can linger long into adulthood. Their still developing bodies simply are not strong enough to tolerate the loads that a one-dimensional sporting experience is exposing them to. A child may look like the picture of health and they may certainly look strong but they are kids and by design are still experiencing the peaks and valleys associated with growth and development.

According to Dr. Brian L. Bixler, who specializes in sports medicine and pediatric orthopedics:

Young athletes at younger and younger ages are opting to specialize in one sport. Many times, this leaves little to no offseason or recovery time for young athletes. For instance, a swimmer who also plays soccer can benefit from multiple sports because while the shoulder and upper body are taxed in swimming, the legs and lower body can be taxed in soccer season -- allowing for soft tissue and muscle recovery.

For this reason, Bixler used to urge all his patients to remain in multiple sports. But he has stopped, because he encounters few multiple-sport athletes.

"It's not a reality (anymore)," Bixler said. "What I tell them is, 'That's fine, but prepare to play baseball year round,'" Bixler said.

Bixler's own family has experienced the trend to concentrate on one sport -- all his children opted to specialize in one sport.

That's where developmentally appropriate strength and conditioning (S&C) comes in. If an athlete decides to specialize in one sport, they also need to add a S&C program to prepare their body for the rigors of playing a sport year round.

"It's like everything else in life, you need to adhere to principles," Bixler said. "Athletes have to prepare for the sport, and know how to take a break. ... Your body needs rest time, and you need to listen to pain. Playing year-round can be -- can be -- as safe as multiple sports or changing sports if you do it the right way."

If a player specializes in a sport, the parents should be keenly aware and involved with their child's development. If a child; for example, is pitching in a recreation league during the week and might be needed to pitch for a tournament team on the weekend, who can best communicate with both coaches the workload a player is carrying?

"It's got to be the parent," Bixler said. [1]

While I do agree with Bixler that it can be safe to specialize in one sport if you follow an appropriate off field conditioning program it still is not optimal for developing the best athlete over the long-term.  And there is no doubt that the elite American athlete is in steep decline. Survey the landscape in sports not dominated by American born athletes (football and to a lesser extent NBA basketball) and you will find few elite American athletes. In tennis there is not a top American born player to be found (especially on the men’s side). With USA Soccer just being competitive is considered a success for the American men. There is no doubt that in this country the best athletes no longer play baseball in fact many professional scouts note how they don’t even bother looking for shortstops (position that requires tremendous raw athleticism) in America anymore. The talent pool in Latin American countries is more fertile. USA hockey is so concerned about their long-term and immediate competiveness that they are revamping their developmental program.

In USA Hockey’s own words:

“We have an overabundance of above average players with very few truly elite players at the very highest levels (NHL).”

“Our influx of elite players in the 80’s and 90’s was an influx of athletes, not hockey players.”

Source- USA Hockey Long-Term Athlete Development, From Pond to Podium- High Performance-Program.

Top coaches and talent evaluators at the professional and collegiate level understand and value the all-around athlete. They have recognized the explosion of early specialization and one-dimensional sport participation has devastated the American talent landscape. The 80’s and 90’s was a golden era for American sportsmen and women what has changed in the last twenty years?

The sport entrepreneur has sold us on the fact that to best the best you have to choose early to start accumulating your 10,000 hours to be considered an expert. They have feasted on our fears of inadequacy and our innate sense of logic (more is always better right?). Youth sports and athletic development has been taken away from the scholastic system and from professionals that understand the importance of long-term athletic development.

Youth sports are bigger than they ever have been and the opportunities to play are limitless. But it’s important to understand that this state of saturation and indulgence has not developed better athletes! In fact, all the evidence points out that the current youth sport culture in America has left our fields quite barren of talent.

The sports entrepreneur in many ways is like a good car salesman. He talks us into buying the luxury SUV with all of the bells and whistles when all we needed was the simple compact model. You see it doesn’t matter what you pile on top of the foundation if it can’t support it.  Children’s athletic foundations can’t support a heavy, specialized load. They are better off starting with the basics that will allow them to expand that foundation appropriately. Once they have developed that broad and diverse foundation they will have the tools to support whatever model (sport) you throw on top of it.


Related Info.

Must watch! This short speech covers it all; Don Lucia, University of Minnesota hockey coach:

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