Dr. James Andrews, who has performed countless career-saving surgeries on top-level athletes and is perhaps the most famed sports surgeon on the planet, was recently quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as saying, “Don’t treat 6- and 7-year-old kids like they’re professional athletes. They’re not ready for that level of high-intensity training.”
He extended that message for youth athletes at older ages, pleading for time off between seasons and within sports to help curb the rash of injuries incurred by young athletes.
Still, parents are reluctant to heed the advice. So let’s amplify it with another source: Dr. Jason Richardson, a former Pan-Am Games gold medal-winning BMX racer who now works with athletes of all ages and disciplines. We’ll start here:
“I can point to a number of pro athletes I know who took some time off and that was maybe to play another sport or do something else and came back to it and they were better,” he says.
Fear of Missing Out
Still not convinced? Well, let’s keep going and examine the reasons why. Part of it could be coming from a place of fear.
“The fear of missing out is the exact reason that some parents – and kids to a certain degree – want to stick with one sport,” Richardson says.
What he means is parents can have the best intentions and even be aware of potential risks associated with early specialization but still be driven to make decisions because they’re trying to keep up with those around them.
“Your kids are playing sports, and it becomes almost a status thing to be on a travel team or club team. I’m learning as a parent there are different ranges of that,” Richardson says. “There is this fear that everyone else is playing and getting better and receiving coaching and all of the above.”
Adds Richardson: “As great as Malcolm Gladwell is as a writer, the 10,000 hours thing has been taken too far,” referencing a work by the author that builds a case for 10,000 hours of practice being the hallmark for success in any given discipline.
The impact of early specialization on young bodies can be seen in repetitive stress injuries.
“If that’s all you do, your body tends to morph into that position,” Richardson says. “So you develop these strengths, which are great, except for the fact that the more you develop those strengths the more you develop compensations.”
Participating in a wider range of athletic activities, on the other hand, helps build complementary muscles and skills.
“You’re recruiting, literally, other muscles – some supportive – to develop in a more complete way,” Richardson says. “And from a brain standpoint, I think you’re able to look at your core competency from a different perspective. So I do think it’s healthier. … I think you can have a focus. You can have the one thing you like and go for. But I do think some breaks and diversity is not only warranted for health reasons but also to help you excel in the thing you really like to do.”
Richardson gave an example from his own life. He initially rejected the idea from a health practitioner that yoga would be a good supplement to his BMX racing. As years went by and nagging injuries mounted, he got off the bike, tried yoga and felt better.
“My body needed to spend time in the opposite position it was used to,” he says.
The mental impact of avoiding early specialization, too, cannot be overstated. Richardson, 41, again draws on personal experience.
“I always raced, but while a lot of my peers were doing it on a national level at a younger age, I was not. It was my hobby. I was into skateboarding, running around the neighborhood,” Richardson says. “I stayed refreshed. By the time I got back on my bike, I was appreciative of it.”
While Richardson understands that the natural athletic seasons of his youth might have given way to a new type of thinking, he also finds it “ridiculous that we have to remind ourselves” that too much of something can be a bad thing.
“I think it’s sucking the fun out of it for a lot of children and it’s too much, too soon,” he adds. “If we’re talking about children and their development, it stands to reason we want them to have a healthy development.”
As for the argument that kids want to be on the ice all the time …
“Even then I think it’s the parent’s responsibility to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a break this time and do this.’ Just to break it up a little,” Richardson says. “It doesn’t mean you’re discouraging them, just redirecting.”
And at the end of the day, you’ll develop a healthier child from a mental and physical standpoint – and quite possibly a better player, too.