By Bill Hartman, PT
We all want our kids to be happy, fit and compete successfully in sports. Unfortunately, youth athletics is trending toward two dangerous outcomes – early specialization and professionalism.
Early sports specialization reduces overall potential athleticism and leads to overuse injuries previously only seen in adult professional athletes. Athletic-related surgeries have increased five to seven times since 2000 according to top orthopedic surgeon to the pros, Dr. James Andrews. Younger, developing bodies are not well designed to handle the stress associated with long or year-round seasons and intensive, professional type conditioning programs.
A plan that encourages long-term athletic development is shown to provide greater sports success in the late teens compared to early specialization regardless of the chosen sport and reduces the potential for common overuse injuries. Use these guidelines to put your young athlete on the ideal path of development.
Less than 8 years old
Encourage daily free play. Playground activities where kids can be creative and make up their own rules without the input of adults are ideal. Let them run, jump, climb and simply be kids. When kids demonstrate the ability to follow rules and stay engaged, begin to include group-structured activities like martial arts and gymnastics that are ideal to teach movement awareness, balance and develop total body strength.
8 to 14 years old
Play a variety of sports. Pick one sport per season such as football or soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Polls show that most of the best Olympic and professional athletes played two to four different sports growing up before finding their niche in a single sport. Begin a supervised, structured but generalized sports conditioning and strength training program to support their on-field performance and protect against injury.
15 to 18 years old
Physical growth, maturity and body type will lead to specialization in one or two primary sports, but young athletes should be encouraged to have at least one full off-season away from their sports. Off-season emphasis on total body strength development and sport-specific conditioning provide athletes with a competitive advantage over athletes that play their sport year round.
Bill Hartman is co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (www.IFASTonline.com) and IFAST Physical Therapy with more than 25 years of experience in rehabilitation and sports training.