By Ken Ilchuk
Last week in this space I wrote about US Soccer’s recent decision to not allow their players in the boys’ academy programs to play high school soccer. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate position for the organization to take and deprives young athletes of some of the social and emotional benefits that athletics is supposed to provide. But hidden in this latest development is the fact that these boys will not only be banned from school soccer, but will be forbidden to participate in ANY other sports, school or otherwise.
US Soccer’s recent ruling is one that demands a move towards specialization in athletes; a soccer-specific single-mindedness that just exacerbates the issues I talked about last week. In my mind, the problems here are exposure and burnout.
I speak from experience on this one. As a year-round swimmer who competed at a fairly high level from the age of ten until my graduation from college, I remember I couldn’t wait for the end of my final college meet. I then spent the next 10 years avoiding the pool…ANY pool. The only swimming I did was a little open water (no pool!) swimming as part of my triathlon training. I joined a softball team, started playing pickup basketball, joined a beach volleyball league, and even played for a bit in a men’s lacrosse league…ANYTHING but swimming. The point is, more is not always better, and physically and emotionally it’s very difficult to maintain a high level of training and performance continuously for 12 months. There need to be natural breaks from these activities. These breaks are critical and necessary. Not only does it help rejuvenate tired muscles, but it breaks the monotony of training, creates a change of scenery, and the mental break actually creates an outlook of looking forward to a new start. The kids actually start to miss it and come back to their activity with a renewed energy and excitement. Allowing young athletes to experience other sports can create those natural breaks, and the exposure actually helps athletes find what they really love to do, and maybe even reinforce their love for their “main” sport.
There’s also a physical aspect to this argument. Different sports require the use of varying muscle groups and develop a host of different skill sets, from agility, balance, and quickness, to speed, strength, and coordination. Exposing young athletes to different sports improves overall athleticism and helps ensure proper muscle development throughout the entire body.
“The benefit to playing multiple sports is that kids are able to develop more in the way of global athleticism,” says personal trainer Mike Mejia, who is a contributor to LIJSoccer.com and a consultant to US Swimming and others. “When kids specialize too early (say before the age of 16), they aren't allowed to capitalize on what are known as ‘sensitive periods’ where certain bio-motor abilities such as balance, coordination, and spatial awareness are best developed. As a result, they put themselves at a physical disadvantage by essentially stunting their athletic growth. Despite the fact that they may be quite proficient in a given sport, they leave themselves far more prone to overuse type injuries and often lack the physical skills necessary to take their game to the next level.”
“When a young athlete plays one sport year-round they repeatedly use the same muscles and joints,” adds Dan Anderson, staff physical therapist at Body in Balance Physical Therapy in Hauppauge. “This prevents adequate time for recovery, imposes substantial stressors on their still developing bodies and increases their risk of overuse injuries.”
That’s not to say these arguments are true for everyone. I know a girl who at nine years of age knew she loved soccer, and that’s all she wanted to do. She played on as many teams as she could and joined an academy program at a fairly young age. She’s still playing at a high level, and she still loves it, and that’s great. But unfortunately, my experience has been that she’s the exception. The decision to focus on soccer came from her. Too often that decision is driven by overambitious coaches and parents who are focused on developing “elite” talent (no one’s really elite at 10 years old), or “working hard” to get better (sports was never intended to be work), or “getting a scholarship” to a big time college program (the truth is there are 100x more academic scholarships than athletic ones – that’s another blog entry).
In the end, it’s supposed to be fun. If it isn’t fun, the kids won’t love it. If they don’t love it, all the high level, sport-specific training in the world won’t make them any better.