I work with a wide variety of athletes on a daily basis. And although I've worked with athletes in every sport imaginable (save for Quidditch) and at every level along the way, the sport I'm most familiar with and the one that makes up the bulk of my clientele is baseball.
Baseball is a popular sport, America' s pastime in fact. And it's no coincidence that it's one of the first sports many young athletes gravitate toward and specialize in.
Baseball, and only baseball, year round. But it's hurting them, not helping them.
I'd argue that it's the biggest detriment to the lack of overall athletic development in many of our young athletes across all sports.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Overuse Injuries
I've heard horror stories of UCL reconstruction (Tommy John surgery) in athletes as young as 12 years old. There's also a growing trend of spinal end-plate fractures (spondylosis) as well as disc slippage (spodylolisthesis) in younger athletes.
Serious stuff. And stuff that rarely happened in that population 20 years ago.
When a young athlete specializes in one sport too soon, he or she performs the same movement patterns over and over and over again, stressing the same body parts, the same muscles and the same ligaments and tendons.
And for every parent or coach who's read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and bought into the 10,000 hours of practice rule in the hopes of molding the next Felix Hernandez or Madison Bumgarner, I can point to a kid who hasn't taken a break from throwing a baseball since last spring whose body hasn't broken down.
2. Lack of a Full Skillset
Ever notice who the best athletes are? The star football player is also a track star, who also happens to hit a baseball 400 feet, can dunk a basketball and can do just about anything else athletically without much thought.
He can also dance and has good hair. What a jerk!
The point is this, those are the types of athletes who tend to be most successful.
Specialzing in one sport too soon fails to fully engage and develop the nervous system in ways that teach the body to learn a wide variety of skillsets and movement patterns across multiple sports, or adapt to different stressors in different environments, often leading to premature injury.
Taking the conversation away from baseball, I've witnessed young hockey players who are wizards on the ice but who have the movement quality of the Tin Man when they take off their skates. I hate saying it—and I do not want this to come across as me making fun—but it's not uncommon for many of them to fail at something as simple as skipping.
When young athletes pigeonhole themselves into one sport too soon, as much as we'd like to commend them for their dedication and seemingly insatiable desire to be successful, it's one of the worst things they can do for their overall athletic development.
Going out of your way to foster and build general athletic traits–across a wide variety of sports now–is a far better predictor of success in any one sport later on in life. Jumping down the "sport-specific" rabbit hole too soon is the wrong choice. Check out the video above to hear San Diego Chargers Antonio Gates discuss growing up as a dual-sport athlete.
3. Kids Should Be Kids
When I was younger—and mind you, the Internet, text messaging and sport-specific training didn't exist back then (I'm 37)—I played every sport imaginable: baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, football, tennis, volleyball and even bowling!
More importantly, neither I nor my parents sought out a "strength coach" when I was 11. I've met parents with kids as young as seven seek out my services.
My parents—whether intuitively or not—understood that allowing me to be a kid—riding my bike, swimming, sprinting, playing dodgeball and wiffleball, and just telling me to go outside—was the best thing they could do to build my athleticism for transitioning to organized, competitive sports in high school and beyond.
Kids (and parents) should remember that youth sports should build character and be enjoyable. And yes, losing and not receiving a trophy for simply showing up are parts of that process.
Specializing too soon can make any sport less fun and feel more like a job to a kid. Moreover, having a child burn out from playing one sport may turn him or her off to all sports, and that's unacceptable. The goal for kids is to be happy and healthy. Sports should be used to build character, self-esteem, confidence, discipline and to make friends—not to transform kids into robotic one-trick-ponies, super athletes who peak at the age of 14 then brag when they become adults about how many no-hitters they pitched in Little League!
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock