Random Thoughts on Youth Athletic Development (July Edition)
Why playing multiple sports early on is so important…
The key benefits of playing multiple sports for young athletes are as follows: diverse general athleticism creates the foundation necessary for elite skill development, protective against repetitive stress/overuse injury, vital for socialization and resilience (athletes that are exposed to diverse and ever-changing personalities and environments tend to control their emotions better and equips them to weather the inevitable ups and downs of team sport). That said there is another benefit that is often overlooked… Discovery!
By participating in multiple sports not only will young athletes develop a broad range of skills that can be applied to any sports endeavor it also provides kids the opportunity to discover through experience what they are actually good at.
A young man that I have been coaching for just over a year played everything growing up (basketball, baseball, football, tennis, golf, soccer). Only recently as a 9th grader did he decide to specialize in soccer.
This young man whom just finished his freshman year of high school, has big goals to play soccer at the highest level possible. And he is taking steps to get the best coaching and training possible to help him get there. But the key is he is making the commitment on his own and is actually taking action to do so. Intrinsic motivation may be the most important factor in athletic development.
As a soccer “field” player he discovered that he likely didn’t have the requisite skill set to play at a high level. However, he was asked to play goalie and while originally hesitant to embrace the concept of not playing in the field he has attacked the process of developing as a goaltender.
He discovered that in the game of soccer his skill set is best suited to play in goal. How did he “discover” this? By playing multiple sports he always had knack for those that required keen hand-eye-coordination. So his developmental years produced a skill that is now his strength and because of that discovery process he has been able to apply that skill to his sport/position of choice. And even better he has the general athletic foundation in place to help him take his special skill to the highest level possible.
Now when he receives instruction from elite coaches (which he is currently doing) he has the ability to process that information (coaching) and apply it to fully maximize his ability. This is why elite coaches actively recruit multiple sports athletes, they have the foundation and the ability to take advanced concepts and make them stick. Without general athleticism most athletes don’t’ have the “body awareness” and just can’t “get it,” the lessons don’t stick!
This situation also points out the importance of not just multi-sport experience but also intra-sport experience. Giving young athletes the opportunity to try different positions within one sport is a great way to help kids find a specific skill/position that they may have a unique talent to thrive in.
Another great example of how multi-sport athletes thrive with advanced coaching concepts lies in a minor league baseball import from Germany!
Max Kepler grew up the son of ballet dancers in Germany where soccer is the national sport. And while Max did play soccer he also found a way to play baseball, which is likely akin to playing rugby or cricket in the U.S. so he didn’t have a lot of experience and likely never received high-level baseball coaching.
However Max showed enough talent that he caught the attention of the Minnesota Twins in MLB whom offered him a contract to play in the U.S. He chooses baseball over his native soccer and while he was very inexperienced and raw when he first came over to the States he has rapidly blossomed from a project into a complete hitter at the age of 22. Both his current hitting coach and manager were very good big league players and their coaching has made all the difference in taking this young man to the pinnacle of his potential. Because of the general athleticism that Kepler possesses he has been able to understand and apply the lessons he has received from expert coaching.
While we are on the topic of multi-sport athleticism…
The U.S. women’s national team just won the World Cup the preeminent event in women’s soccer! How did they do it? I am sensing a theme amongst elite athletic performers…
Miggy seeks longevity
The Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera is 32 years old and he wants to continue to play the game at an elite level well into his late 30’s, a time when most players begin to decline physically. Cabrera sought the counsel of several former players who excelled in their mid to late 30’s. "I ask them how they have success after age 35, 36. How do they prepare for the game? There has to be a key, you know? And they always tell me that it's now. It's right now. You've got to prepare your body, your mind, everything now if you're going to have success when you're at that age."
"I think the last two seasons helped me to understand how to treat my legs, how to do my exercises right, how to take care of the little muscles you don't think about," Cabrera said. “If you can work out like this, you're going to be able to play the game a long time."*
Cabrera like many young players just rely on their youth early in their careers and don’t begin to take conditioning seriously until they start to slow down a bit physically.
Getting ahead of the aging process by taking care of your body when your young would be a huge advantage and will promote longevity in any athlete. And it’s scary to think that at age 22 Bryce Harper, arguably the top talent in the sport has figured out that training and fueling his body is the key to becoming the best.
Harper has long been hailed as one of the rising young talents in the game but he has not lived up to early expectations largely because he hasn’t been able to stay on the field consistently since making his debut in 2012 at age 19. But this past off-season on advice from a veteran teammate Harper shed close to 35 pounds of mass.
"You don't need to be that big. Be as limber as you can. Be as flexible as you can. I don't lift that many weights. It's more body-weight stuff. “
“Having a good swing is all about your legs and core. You really have to have a good foundation. If you look at your legs and your core -- those are the things you really need. I spend about an hour a day on core.”
The above point is crucial for baseball players to understand. Getting strong will enhance performance but if you don’t do it the right way it will make you more prone to injury as well as making you thick and slow!
Another key to longevity and maximizing your athletic ability is recovery. And this is something else that Harper learned from his veteran teammates and is actually applying it! The two big pillars of recovery are sleep and nutrition.
“Sleep is huge. That's your biggest way of recovering. In baseball, it's such a hard sleep schedule during the season, but you try to do the best you can. Because you can take all the protein drinks, you can do all these things, but your recovery is your sleep.”
“Either you put crap into your body and you feel lazy all day, or you put good stuff into your system and you feel great every single day.”**
To tie this all together multi-sport participation helps young athletes develop a huge foundation upon which advanced sport specific skills can be built and fully realized. Additionally it’s extremely protective in terms of injury prevention and keeping the body fresh. Most young athletes participate in leagues with schedules that closely resemble those of professionals. And while they are young to keep kids on the field and free of injury sleep and proper nutrition should not be neglected! If young athletes are consistently tired and sore their reaction time, coordination and speed of movement will suffer a gradual decline leading to poor performance at best and debilitating injuries at worst.
And strength and conditioning is great but understand the demands of your sport and the specific type of training that will best prepare you for sport. Heavy weight lifting and extreme flexibility and endurance training are in most cases not a good fir for athletic populations!