Young Athletes Sports-Specific Training Insanity
By Mike Mejia
You see the ads all the time. Typically rife with promises of “radical increases” in strength, speed and power, they grab the attention of athletes, parents and coaches alike. Capitalizing on the desire of young athletes to gain any possible advantage over their peers, sports-specific training programs have been popping up all over the place in recent years. Whether it’s a soccer player seeking a more powerful kick, or a basketball player that wants to increase his, or her vertical leap, parents are shelling out big money for training that’s aimed at increasing their child’s physical prowess in a given sport. The question is, though, how specific does a training program really need to be for bodies that are still developing and as such, often have a variety of needs that far outweigh the enhancement of particular sports skills?
The unfortunate reality is that often times these programs do little more than contribute to the rapidly increasing rate of overuse injuries currently seen in youth sports! By replicating the same movement patterns and taxing the same muscle groups that are already being overused during practice and competition, this emphasis on “sports-specific” training is the exact opposite of what young athletes actually need. Rather than seek to enhance overall athleticism and reduce injury risk, many of these programs load kids up with bands, sleds and various other types of resistance, long before their bodies are physically prepared to do so. The thought process being that by overloading specified movement patterns, the athlete will be better able to meet the specific demands of his, or her sport.
Is this really necessary…
Seemingly sound thinking; particularly when applied to young athletes age 16-17 and older, who’ve likely been training longer and as a result, possess a more sound physical foundation to work off of. Even then, however, such athletes should be thoroughly assessed to identify any weak links (i.e. strength and flexibility imbalances) that may serve as potential precursors to injury. For younger kids though, this trend towards sport specificity is an unmitigated mistake- especially when the intent is future sports stardom! As experts in the field of athletic development and sports conditioning continually point out, the vast majority of world class athletes didn’t specialize too early and instead, were exposed to a wide variety of sports that helped them develop more in the way of global athleticism.
In direct contrast to this, nowadays we commonly see kids who despite dominating in a particular sport, lack the ability to run properly, skip, throw a ball, change direction, land from a jump, or execute a host of other basic physical skills that require efficient, coordinated movement.
That’s why I’m imploring parents and coaches alike to stop buying into the hype and subjecting young athletes to this type of approach.
Get your kids working on improving things like mobility, flexibility and systemic strength and resist the temptation to have them mimic specific sports skills through training. If they play tennis, instead of having them try to replicate their swing against rubber resistance tubing, have them work on general core strengthening. If basketball’s their game, forget all of the intensive plyometric drills until they’ve first demonstrated the ankle mobility and knee stability necessary to safely engage in this type of training.
Granted, this may not be the popular approach and is in fact, often the last thing that scholarship obsessed athletes (and their parents) want to hear. I guess it just doesn’t pack the same marketing punch as potential division one success, or lucrative pro contracts. However, with up to half of the 2 million sports injuries suffered each year by middle and high school aged young athletes being attributed to overuse, it’s a message that desperately needs to be heard. It also happens to be where this industry is eventually headed and exactly the tact we need to take if we’re ever really going to get this young athletes injury epidemic under control.