Young athletes benefit from variety, health pros say
Chances are, there’s a young athlete in your neighborhood, maybe even under your roof, who wants to be the next LeBron, the next Serena — the next big name in sports.
But the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many coaches and health professionals, say that focusing on intensive, single-sport training at a young age can increase the chance of injury and mental fatigue.
The AAP stated in a 2000 abstract (and reaffirmed in 2015): “Children involved in sports should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills. Young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional physical, physiologic and psychologic demands from intense training and competition.”
The AAP concedes that there is little quantitative evidence to support this theory, even though many pediatricians cite examples from their personal practices.
Scott Russell has seen it for himself. Russell is the head coach for track and field at Basehor-Linwood High School; he also teaches physical education and coaches middle school track and field in Basehor. He has watched many athletes stick with the same sport all year, going from a club team to the school team, then back to the club.
“If I look at it from a coaching perspective, I don’t even know that it’s mentally healthy to be stuck in one sport for a long period of time,” Russell said. “You’re going to be mentally burned out if you are in one sport all year doing the same thing, the same movements.”
As a physical education teacher, he mixes up his classes to intersperse fitness training — flexibility, strength and cardiovascular work — with nontraditional games to keep things interesting.
Building a foundation of good movement with fun and games is part of the process.
Adam Rolf, a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, oversees programs that help students develop as athletes, from programs on fundamental movement for kids in second grade all the way up to varsity sports performance training for competitive high school athletes.
“The big thing when we start out at our lowest level, it’s all about building a foundation,” Rolf said. “We do it in a fun way. It’s games, like jumping rope for fun, but we’re timing them, for example.”
As they get older, the movements become more intense. They move from body weight training to using resistance with weights.
LMH does offer specialized performance training groups for specific sports. “We do very little specialization until we get into high school. The main reason is at that before that kids are playing multiple sports, and they should be playing multiple sports.”
Russell knows what’s it’s like to specialize. The Kansas University graduate threw the javelin for Canada in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
He knows there are statistics to prove that performance in a sport is improved by doing that very sport. “But if you look at performance improvement and injury prevention in athletes, some of the skills you’re going to get in, say, a strength and conditioning program or from playing multiple sports will develop different skills that avoid overuse injuries,” he said.
Russell participated in several sports as a kid, going from one season’s sport to the next. “It was always mentally fresh to go into something new once our season finished, rather than continuing to grind it out in one sport.”
Rolf says that even if a student is headstrong about participating in one particular sport, parents can help by making sure that athlete is doing some kind of additional activity to keep the body in balance.
“I don’t think it’s ever the answer to tell a basketball player they need to stop shooting and just go do squats,” Rolf said. “What you do need to do is say, ‘hey, to continue to get better at your sport, why not get better balance? Why not get better strength?'”
Rolf says the conditioning programs he oversees are about helping athletes learn to move, which helps them avoid getting hurt. “Injury prevention is our number one goal. The gym should be the safest place.”
Oftentimes Rolf reminds parents that if an old injury continues to haunt them, they should do all they can to help their own children avoid that fate. “If you’re 40 and you can’t throw a ball, something happened to break that down along the road,” he said. “Let’s learn from that mistake so it doesn’t happen to your child as well.”
It’s a lot of education, from everything to sleep and nutrition to stretching and hydration. The LMH sports performance center does outreach at schools and practices through workshops and training with coaches and parents to help expand their knowledge so they can help their athletes improve.
“So many are volunteering their time to help, so if we can be a resource for them, providing guidelines, that’s great,” Rolf said.
Sometimes injured athletes have to know when to back off, and parents and coaches play a role in that.
“I know it’s hard,” Rolf said. “You’ve got to see the bigger picture. I know you have a window of time when you can play high school sports. But if you can commit to training well, you’re going to be a lot better off than if you tear your ACL and you’re out for six months, minimum. The cost and mental anxiety are great. If we can, let’s keep you healthy before that happens.”
WellCommons editor Michelle Tevis can be reached at 832-7255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.