The off season is arguably the most productive time of year for athletes, but for some reason kids these days skip this time entirely so that they can play one sport all year long. This blows my mind –the thought of no off season and missing opportunities to learn and grow as an athlete. Everyone needs an off season. That’s right, the off season is time for athletes to train their bodies to move in different ways and get some strength back that they might have lost during the rigors of the season. My professional track athletes spend their off season building strength and practicing non-track skills. For younger kids, the simplest way is to play as many different sports as they can, all year long.
Brad Hatfield, chair of the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland, says, “Variety in the physical demands of sports training is often a good thing because it prevents overtraining – which can hurt performance – and it lessens degrees of physical and psychological exhaustion. Different sports bring different demands. Think of it as different links in a chain. If one area of athletic performance is weak, that can slow an area of growth. By doing other sports, those links are going to be addressed.”
Not all sports are created equal. Some require you to run in a straight line as fast as you can, while others require teamwork and agility more than speed. When you use a skill in a completely different situation, that’s when you take the first step to movement mastery. Think about the shuffling a shortstop does to get in front of a line drive, then visualize a basketball player shuffling side to side to keep his opponent from driving the lane. Testing one’s skills in different situations is the best way to refine them and enhance athletic development.
Dr. Michael Kelly, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said that while it’s a lot healthier for the body to “cross train” with different sports, many kids today focus on just one sport. This focus on one sport year-round is putting kids at greater risk for injuries and hindering overall athletic development.
When Dr. James Andrews was asked why there is a spike in injuries among young athletes he replied, “Multiple factors, but two stand out: specialization and what we call professionalism.” He defines professionalism as taking a 12- or 13-year-old and training them like a professional athlete. It’s quite foolish to think that kids are mature enough to handle the same work load as a 25-year-old, but you’ll see parents doing just that across the country at baseball and volleyball tournaments.
I believe that the more sports an athlete plays, the more skills they are able to acquire, which creates a better movement foundation that can facilitate learning specialized skills faster. With increased skill and awareness come greater movement potential. Testing your skills in different situations and learning many skills as opposed to just a few is vital if you expect to be a great athlete for a lifetime.
Now, I do believe that athletes can benefit from specialized training for one specific sport, but only when they are at an advanced skill level and are at least 17 years old, in most cases. The mistake most trainers and coaches make is that they introduce this type of training far too early. Specialized training for a particular sport needs to be treated as the cherry on top of their training sundae –it should make up a small percentage of total training hours on an annual basis. This type of training only benefits the athlete if they have built a foundation of strength and high quality movement patterns.
I know some people still may think that other sports would be a distraction or “waste of time.” Well, if you asked Jackie Robinson, John Elway or anyone else on this list. I bet they would say otherwise.
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