Sport Game Competition vs. Athletic Preparation for the Youth Athlete

This past summer alone, I have had numerous conversations on where and how “training” fits in to the youth athlete schedule. This is an almost impossible question to answer simply because each athlete has a different schedule and different goals. However, one statement I will make with 100% confidence and certainty is that if an athlete wants to improve and maximize his/her sports career, they NEED to train on a regular basis.
IMO there is almost a “tug of war” going on with how a youth athlete and his/her family go about their unique sports competition experience. In general, the “tug of war” winner seems to easily be the participation of sports competitions. As an example, I look at a motivated high school baseball player and the number of games that he plays in when you add up his high school season, his club team season, and other elite team situations he is a part of on a year around basis and the number of games is overwhelming. Keeping with my tug of war analogy, on the other side of the rope is the physical training preparation (strength, power, speed, agility, mobility, etc…). In most cases by these athletes, physical training is just skimmed over or left out completely. I use the baseball player analogy here, but it is the same for many athletes in a variety of sports. Game competition dominates over athletic preparation.
Let me preface this by saying I was a high school team sport coach much longer than I have been a trainer. Having athletes in competitive situations is very important and necessary and always will be. My gripe that I have even when I was in the midst of my coaching career and definitely now as a trainer is the ratio of playing competitively to performing physical preparation training is out of whack. I have said it many times before and will say it again, the most common thing I see with the motivated youth athlete population are athletes that are well versed in the fundamentals of their sport but aren’t physically athletic enough to play beyond high school. Sadly, I think this will continue to be the story for most as long as the emphasis of playing games all year around at the expense of athletic training continues.
What are collegiate football players doing during their off season? How about women’s collegiate volleyball players? How about professional baseball players from their November thru February off season months? I guarantee you the majority of their time is spent physically training for their upcoming season. Game competitions are put on the back burner for awhile and training becomes the major priority. I strongly believe that youth athletes need to have this same approach!

Youth Athlete Sport Specialization: Good or Bad?

The idea of a young athlete specializing in a sport for an entire year or at least a good portion of it seems to be more common than ever. I know of parents who are sold on the idea of making sure their young son or daughter has a chance to develop their skill set in soccer, hockey, baseball, etc. with the hopes of taking their athletic career as far as possible. To do this, these young athletes are playing a sport at the club level basically all year around.

Is this right?

I don’t think it would be fair of me to answer yes or no to that question without knowing more facts. What I do feel the need to discuss are the 4 key concerns I have when a youngster is going about his/her sports activities this way:

1. HAVING FUN- Many think that having fun is the direct opposite of tough competition. Truth is that they can both be present at the same time. When an athlete is on an advance club team that has high goals and ambitions, there still needs to be an environment present that is fun and enjoyable to be in. I believe in the importance of keeping both of these present simultaneously and kids should be questioned regularly if they are having fun and feeling good about being in this competitive environment.

2. DEVELOPING ATHLETICALLY- I have always been of the belief that sports skills aren’t as complex as many people think they are. The female soccer player wanting to develop her goalie skills, the baseball player wanting to perfect his hitting swing, or the football quarterback wanting to improve his throwing accuracy are all important parts of development that these athletes should spend time on, but in many cases at the youth level, I witness these skills attempting to be developed only with incredibly high amounts of practice hours without any other type of training. Time does need to be spent on sport skill development, but just as much time should be spent on developing athleticism (speed, quickness, agility, strength, power, body control, flexibility). This to me is the big area of need at the youth sport level that isn’t being addressed by the masses properly. It is of my strong opinion that developing this athleticism should be of much higher priority than developing specific sports skills with youth athletes, especially if there are aspirations of longer, more successful athletic careers.

3. PLAYING MULTIPLE SPORTS- No matter how much an athlete loves a certain sport, we are all susceptible to burnout if we do one thing in excess. Playing more than one sport is a great way to satisfy the competitive juices we have and be exposed to other forms of competition and challenges. This is one theme that is shared by almost every successful coach that I know. As proud as they are of their sport they coach, without hesitation they acknowledge the fact that playing multiple sports is a better option than just specializing in one.

4. TAKING TIME OFF- As human beings, we all need to recharge our batteries from any one specific stimulus done over a period of time. As a long time football coach, I love the idea of being immersed in football and thinking about trying to improve my program any way possible, but even with this motivation, I need a good couple of months after a season ends to take time away from it and smell the roses. From an athletes perspective, they should feel refreshed and energized going into an athletic season. and taking time off to do so should be encouraged.

I know of many very good, high qualified coaches who coach youth club sports that do a wonderful job of coaching kids in a very positive way. This is definitely not an article that attacks these coaches in any way, but in my observations of these sport situations and the way the masses of parents perceive their use to their children, I have seen certain patterns of thought that come about that are concerning to me. I would hope that these concerns of mine stimulate thought in any parents that have children in these sport situations for the sake of improving their sport activities in a variety of ways.