By Leo Shveyd, Co-Owner of Advanced Wellness
I love it when wellness and athletic performance interests align. However, sometimes what is good for your wellbeing may not lead to optimum performance when it comes to sports – and vice versa. This is particularly evident in the case of single-sport athletes, especially when they are at a young age.
We have personally trained many such athletes at our gym at Advanced Wellness and have witnessed this first-hand. Some of these young athletes begin training at Advanced Wellness as they are transitioning to a single sport, year-round, while others come to us looking for a workout regimen which provides optimal mobility, stability and strength solutions specific to their particular sport.
Skilled young athletes are typically singled out for their physical (and mental) talents in sports. They are then told that it is important to develop these skills, in order to compete in high school, college, and possibly at higher levels. These kids are typically recruited by a director/coach from a year-round club/AAU program and they are off on their athletic path.
Specialization in sports is the new norm. Sports training programs are increasingly being designed as “single sport” (basketball, soccer, baseball etc.) with customized, progressive workouts and fitness regimens. And I’ve seen many parents also “drink the Kool-Aid”, believing that their child needs extra training hours and coaching outside of what they obtain by “playing” in order to realize their true athletic potential. Is this a problem?
What are the inherent issues associated with single-sport training?
My first concern is that many single sport training programs tend to focus on short-term results. Let’s look at the costs and benefits of short-term vs long-term athletic development…
Short-term vs Long-term Athletic Training Programs
An important decision must be made when it comes to training young athletes. Is it preferable to focus on short-term athletic development (win and chase glory now) or long-term athletic development (where achieving the pinnacle of an individual’s athletic potential may not happen until their late teens or twenties)?
There are three parties who benefit from sports specific training: the athlete, of course, as well as the sports program director/coach and finally the parents of the athlete but note, their interests may not necessarily be aligned.
The director/coach’s interest is simple and shorter-term in focus: build up their club, do better and more kids will want to join their program, allowing them to recruit even better talent. This requires winning now so they can continue to recruit more easily since better athletes always want (as most of us do) to be associated with a “winner”. I find that parent’s interest in their children’s athletic performance typically falls into two categories: they are either promoting what they believe is in the best interest of the child, (or worse) they can be living-out their own athletic dreams through their kids. Unfortunately, these parental interests tend also to be shorter term in focus.
Below is a chart that highlights the attributes of a short-term versus long-term focus when it comes to athletic development:
|Short-term Athletic Development||Long-term Athletic Development|
2. Movement Specificity
3. Playing (at a high intensity & high volume) & Winning
4. Faster Pace
|1. Seasonal (or a lesser frequency)
2. Health & Movement Variety (focusing on foundational movements)
3. Variety of (intensities focusing on foundational movement and skill development)
4. Slower Pace
Athletic programs which seek shorter-term results are typically year-round, focusing on specific movements that result in better performance in the desired sport, and are done at higher intensities, high volume and a fast pace; the goal is be the best you can be “now”. These principles certainly align with the interests of the director/coach, some parents who seek immediate results, as well as kids who are early bloomers and likely to reach their athletic prowess in the first, say, 15-years of life.
Conversely, programs which are oriented towards longer-term athletic development are typically seasonal (less frequent; with longer breaks in between training sessions at a minimum), allowing for more movement variety and foundational movements. These might accompany a well-thought-out performance (strength, power, speed, etc.) and skill development program that provides an additional layer of complexity. These programs are typically accomplished at a slower pace, and planned carefully, with longevity in mind. Increased periods for rest and recovery are provided which decrease the risk of dreaded over-training injuries. This longer-term approach to athletic training promotes building skills and performance objectives together with a foundation of wellness.
We believe in the interests of the child, a case should be made for a focus on long-term athletic development. In my opinion, this type of a training regimen is in the best interest of most elite athletes that bloom at 15 years of age or later.
A second concern of mine with single sport training programs is that they may not include sufficient variety of movement techniques and skill-building.
The Evidence: Multiple Activity Movement is Better for Elite-Level Athletic Performance
In order to better understand how single sport activity is at odds with the long-term athletic development for elite level athletes, let’s review some market research conducted with young athletes. The graph below* comes from a survey of approximately 10,000 world-class athletes at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. They were asked: “how many sports did you participate at these ages?”
The data shows that when it comes to sports participation, variety of sports declines with age. The responses from these world class athletes indicate that they participated, on average, in roughly three sports up to 14 years of age, with that number declining to 2.2 from ages 15-18 years and then to 1.27 from ages 19-22. Interestingly, this number ticks up to 1.31 from ages 22 years and up.
What does this tell us?
- Athletes tend to specialize over the course of their training careers
- But, perhaps more importantly, movement variety and multiple activity participation is a key component for achievement of elite level athleticism.
This makes perfect sense, in fact, if you understand the physical dynamics of human survival (e.g. keeping yourself alive by staying safe, sheltered, warm, hydrated, fed). Science proves that when it comes to staying alive, we must all become “generalists”, incorporating a variety of skills from how we think to how we move. Two of my favorite television shows showcase survival strategies which work well for city slickers: Dual Survival and Mountain Men on the History Channel. The characters in these shows exhibit tremendous creativity and movement variability, literally on a moment’s notice when facing moments of crisis. For example, when setting out to hunt an animal for food, they may need to army-crawl on their bellies, swim through rivers, hike up and down mountains, sprint, climb a tree, get on one knee to take a shot, etc. The entire process requires a wide variety of movement skills. Moreover, tracking an animal alone may last a full day or more, covering 10-20 miles per day, which is an incredible feat of endurance. If they are lucky enough to call the hunt successful, they then need to carry the meat back to their shelter. I’ve watched characters on the shows carry upwards of 200 pounds of animal meat on their backs or tow 400 pounds on a snow sled, further taxing their strength reserves. This is often done in the same day; multiple movement skills demonstrated at varying intensities for one single outcome: survival.
I believe that variety of training, skill-building and movement is even more necessary later in life in order to maintain health and be able to continue to perform at elite levels. Based on my experience, athletes that tend to play one sport starting at age 13 or 14 are more likely to wind up at our gym looking for a solution to their inability to stay healthy.
A case in point, a professional soccer player in his early twenties who came to us several years ago. This athlete, began his athletic career at age 7 and played through a myriad of injuries during his high school and college career, before his body finally gave out in the pros. He ended up needing hip surgery and it remains to be seen whether he will come back to play again at the same level.
What does this story and those of other single-sport athletes that we work with at Advanced Wellness have in common? As a general rule, athlete’s bodies don’t like large single, as well as prolonged, doses of stress. However, this is exactly what happens to single sport athletes. This results in kids “burning out”, either mentally, physically, or both, at a very young age.
Based on these two over-arching risks associated with single-sport training (short term focus, narrow variety of training techniques), I recommend the following training guidelines for young athletes ages 18 and younger:
- Participate in multiple sports/activities and/or cross-train. For those of us that live in cities in the present day, due to security concerns and time availability, parents may now need to substitute “activities and scheduled sessions” in place of “unorganized play” which is what many prior generations did. With that in mind, young aspiring athletes should play multiple sports; Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (especially because of the varied positions) and rock climbing are great cross training options for example.
- Participate in a well-designed sports performance program that is customized/personalized to optimize your specific strengths and physical challenges. At Advanced Wellness, we coach athletes as young as 13 in our regular athletic sports performance programs, but have worked with kids even younger on a one-on-one basis.
- If you must play only one sport, make sure you have a skilled movement practitioner assisting you in addition to your team coach. You see the dentist twice a year, see your doctor hopefully at least once a year, likewise you should check in with your movement practitioner to maintain your body and be proactive to reduce the potential for injury.
At Advanced Wellness, we love training young athletes. So, to all of you, to your wellness, performance and being and doing – BETTER!
For more information on these topics, please read these informative articles from ESPN about young basketball athletes:
*Unfortunately, I can’t recall the source of this specific graph as I grabbed a screenshot from an article on this topic.