By: Dr Gwenn [Pediatrics Now]

Curt Schilling has one. So does Manny, Mia Hamm, Tom Brady, and college athletes. What about your young athlete? What is the mystery thing? An off season.

#1 Avoid Injuries: The Importance of an Off-season

And it is a mystery. It’s a mystery why pros have one and youth athletes don’t.  It’s a mystery why coaches and parents refuse to acknowledge the reams of data proving youth sports are out of control. And, it’s an ever bigger mystery why community based coaches, and parents, fail to heed the cries of these athletes whose bodies and minds are screaming out that enough is enough by record numbers of injury rates and emotional burnout.

The concept of an off season is simple. Work hard while in season but work differently off season. That’s why you see so many pros playing golf off season! Brian Grasso, Executive Director of the International Youth Conditioning Association ( notes “The off-season is important, so much so that true athletic development and the ascension to becoming a better athlete isn’t possible without one.”

“The key”, notes Grasso, “is to make sure that people understand the notion of off-season not as completely devoid of exercise or even competition, but more accurately a re-characterization of the activity stimulus that young athletes encounter. Simply put, play a different sport. Participate in no organized sports, but remain informally active.”

Eric Cressey, strength and conditioning specialist at Excel Sport and Fitness in Waltham, who has trained all levels of athlete from youth level to elite, shares Grasso’s perspective: “The in-season period is the ideal time to develop the player, but the rest of the year should focus on developing the athlete.  This should take place at the Olympic and professional levels making it even more important at the youth levels. The off-season is a time to escape from competition and focus on preparing the body in a general sense for what’s ahead.”

The proof for the need in an off season lies in the injury rates seen in youth sports. Dr. Pierre D’Hemecourt, Pediatric Orthopedist at Children’s Hospital Boston, has seen “an exponential rise” in overuse and repetitive use injuries over the last decade. Like Grasso and Cressey, he feels lack of free play and cross training are the culprits. To add insult to injury, kids are also not being allowed to heal properly after an injury. The pros have a disabled list. Why not youth sports teams?

#2 Play According to Age: Kids Need Time to Develop

It may help you to conceptualize a child’s developing body like baking a chocolate chip cookie. For the perfect cookie, you need specific ingredients in the right proportion for the cookie to bake correctly.  A child’s growing and developing body is similar and needs a variety of ingredients to grow correctly – a balance of foods, physical activity, education, rest time, enrichment, and fun.  Miss an ingredient, add too much of an ingredient, and the child won’t “bake” right.

For our kids, today’s level of youth sports participation is like having too many chocolate chips in a cookie – too much of a good thing, particularly in prepubertal kids. Labelling a child as a star athlete before puberty is complete is like awarding a baker the best recipe for a cookie before the taste tests are complete.

During puberty, growth rates accelerate, hormones change strength and physical changes occur and as a result a child’s coordination becomes temporarily awkward. Many kids, in fact, become worse at sports during puberty before settling into their new bodies. All kids have to get used to new height and strength and girls have to get used to a completely new body shape all together.

Bob Bigelow, former NBA player and youth sports activist, is very concerned that too many kids are marginalized as being poor athletes before they’ve been given an opportunity to finish growing and develop. Many of our best known sports stars had their own sports struggles. Did you know that Michael Jordan was cut from his sophomore varsity basketball team? He was only 5’9” at that time. But, over the next two years he grew 8 inches and developed enough coordination while on JV to be on the varsity team as a senior in high school. And, that’s when his true skill started to shine.

Many sports are starting to take a more developmental approach which is why soccer now has shortened fields, and t-balls are used for young baseball and softball. Bigelow would like to see modifications in other sports as well. For example, have a 3 on 3 for youth basketball instead of the 5 by 5 we may be more familiar with from TV. Bigelow is quick to remind parents that what we see on TV is the tip of the iceberg, the most elite. Kids are still developing so they need very different sports structures and experiences. As Bigelow notes, “adapt the game to the kids, not kids to the game”.

The idea is to encourage kids to “play against their last best effort”, as Bigelow puts it, and not focus on specialization until growth is complete, which may not be until the junior year in high school for most teens, or even college.  This is no different than majoring in any subject in school. You’d never pick a major without first tasting a smorgasbord of courses. And, even then, you always have a minor or two to keep yourself balanced.

One way to create variety is to expose kids to individual sports that can be enjoyed into adult life without the burden of a team. Golf, tennis and swimming fall into that category and so do baseball and basketball where there are often adult leagues. However, Bigelow cautions, it has to be on the child’s terms. “Kids love wacking balls”, notes Bob. “Let them create their own rules. Give them balls and a racquet and let them decide how to wack them over the net”.

#3 Stay Active: Mix Organized Sports with Downtime

Kids need a certain level of kid-friendly activity for their bodies to develop appropriately as athletes. Otherwise they will end up either underdeveloped, and overweight, or pushed too much, with physical and emotional burnout and injury.

Appropriate levels of activity also impacts youth sports injury rates.  Dr. D’Hemecourt explains that many sports have been studied and the injury rate does increase if participation is beyond 15 hours a week for most sports. For example, if little league baseball players play for longer than 9months a year, shoulder injuries rise.

Equally important to the need for physical activity in childhood is the right amount of activity. In fact, appropriate levels of sports participation are actually much less than what kids are currently doing. Youth sports experts like Bigelow and Grasso feel kids in 3rd to 5th grade should be doing 1 organized sport per season for no more than 3 times a week at 90 minute durations. And, all kids should do something active every day informally with friends and family.

#4 Have a Good Leader: An Experienced Coach is Important

Baking a cookie and developing a young athlete do have one important difference: we can bake an outstanding cookie by simply following the recipe. But, coaching involves a great deal more than following a recipe.  In fact, it is what is not in the play book that our kids need. Bigelow compares coaching to teaching. “A parent coaching doesn’t make any more sense than one of us teaching English or math because we took it in school.” Just like we have trained and educated teachers, youth sports needs trained and educated coaches.  As we all know, today’s community coaches are often well meaning parents whose only expertise is watching ESPN and having played sports as a child.

When in doubt, just have fun.

Sports are in good company in today’s childhood. The same overuse phenomenon is happening in music, dance, art, acting, horseback riding, and just about every activity our kids are interested in. Sports should be coupled with nonsports and everything coupled with downtime. Otherwise, today’s kids will end up incomplete – just like serving chocolate chip cookies sans the chips.

Don’t let your kid become chipless. Give them a chance to absorb all the right ingredients, in the right way, before it’s too late.

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