Where’s the Off-Season? Why Youth Sports Specialization Doesn’t Work

What Happen to the off-season youth sports - CrossFit Fringe

Question: How should my child approach training for a specific sport?

“It’s amazing to see how many good players don’t make it to the majors, but they played in the Little League World Series” (Eric Cressey, The Ready State Podcast, Jan. 16, 2018).

Youth sports specialization starts with the best intentions

Athletes of all ages pursuing a sport are always looking for ways to be more competitive and gain an advantage over their competition. The smallest increase in speed, technique, knowledge, or any number of other tangible metrics could help the average player gain an advantage over their otherwise equal peer – potentially gaining a starting position, earning a coveted scholarship, or even in incredibly rare cases, leading to a multi-million dollar professional contract.

The broken year-round model

The trouble we all too often see is many younger athletes fall victim to over-specialization as they’re still developing, becoming completely immersed in their sport year-round.

For example, a youth baseball little-leaguer will start their season in the spring, and finish in early fall. Immediately, they move into a specialized fall baseball league for more reps, more at-bats, and more throws off the mound. Next up, we see that same player sign up for winter hitting practice in the batting cages, and/or signing on with throwing coaches for the colder months. We then come full circle when we’re right back to early spring and tryouts for the next team. This relentless highly specialized circle that has become all too common for our youth athletes.

More is NOT more

Sure, it might seem that “more is better” when it comes to sport-specific training, but it couldn’t be further from the truth for youth athletes.

In this case, “more” is simply more. Looking at the literature available, it’s been demonstrated time and again that year-round single sport training has led to the highest incidences of overuse injury and mental burn-out. This is documented well before higher levels of competition are even reached.

We’re doing a disservice to our youth athletes. With physical bodies and mental development continually occurring, youth athletes are learning and adjusting every few months. We know that from roughly six years of age through late high school (or beyond), young athletes are served best with variety and even unstructured play. Multi-sport athletes develop more skills, have better body awareness, a higher rate of overall development, and experience fewer injuries with less mental fatigue than single-sport youth athletes.

Ward off mental stagnation

Competing in a single sport utilizing sport-specific training year-round creates an enormous strain mentally. When the athlete is always “on”, there is never a chance to reconcile, relax, and reset. This can and often lead to mental fatigue and/or burnout well before the athlete has an injury, or their body gives up physically.

When the mind is continually focused on repetition and familiarity, overall growth and stimulation are halted. Problem-solving, critical thinking, and social play for the sake of growth are removed in lieu of advancing knowledge in a single specific endeavor. The primary focus shifts to only knowledge related to that sport and creates turgor thought processes that inflexible and lacking creativity. Concurrent development in overall greater mental expression is sacrificed.

With regular and well-structured off-season activity, youth athletes have a chance to explore and solve problems in other areas that produce more creativity. They must think and adapt to overcome new challenges which lead to better overall awareness when they’re back on the field of play.

Counter physical stunting

The physical changes that youth athletes change and grow from in a short time is unbelievable. “Children can improve strength by 30% to 50% after just 8 to 12 weeks of a well-designed strength training program.”1 This is a MASSIVE change for any athlete and an incredible testament to their adaptability! So how can we best serve them during this time?

Consider pairing a strength-focused program with one that also focuses on balance, mobility, and conditioning. Their base of athleticism will grow exponentially. Not only will this protocol help their athletic expression in sport, but it drastically decreases the likelihood of an overuse injury. While we know nothing eliminates 100% of the risk, a well-rounded off-season program has been shown to significantly mitigate injury-risk and helps keep young athletes moving forward.

Don’t believe it? In 2017, 30 out of the 32 top NFL draft picks were multi-sport athletes in high school2. That demonstrates again that In the highest level professional athletes, those who didn’t exclusively specialize early in their development had the greatest chance for athletic success later in life.

The best option is a solid base

One thing is certain – taking the off-season to diversify will lead to better performance success. Diversity provides the necessary break both mentally and physically from sport-specific stressors and creates the opportunity for fun and creative problem solving while continuing to adapt and develop their ever-growing bodies.

The off-season doesn’t have to be expressed only through another sport. Whether it’s becoming stronger, more mobile or a higher conditioned athlete, programs such as CrossFit Kids offer these youth athletes a chance to work on their overall development.

We are here to help!

We know navigating the advice and recommendations from schools, training facilities, and coaches is tough. We are happy to talk through options, find the best plan, or follow your student’s progress throughout the year. Email [email protected] today, or schedule an Intro to meet with our coaching staff.