Youth Sports Epidemic PT1

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The Youth Sports Epidemic In the United States

by Adam Menner 

_______________________________________________________________________

 

In this piece, we’re going to bring to light a major problem in youth sports in the United States. This epidemic could come down to one issue, volume control for athletes. 

In 2013, ESPN Columnist, Bruce Kelly wrote a piece called “Hey Data Data, Swing.”

In his piece, he stated “for starters, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which employs tens of thousands of online interviews, tallies how many kids between 6 and 17 are regular/frequent (or what it calls “core”) players of different sports.

These “core” numbers make a decent stand-in for kids who play on organized teams, even though that’s not the question asked; what’s asked is whether a kid played that sport a minimum of 13 times a year in a sport like ice hockey or 26 times a year in a sport like soccer. SFIA gave ESPN The Mag custom data totaling up its 2011 participation.”

Keep in mind, this data was extrapolated from 2011 and earlier.

I read this article exactly three years ago. I hit home for me (pun intended). However, with this information, I knew I could immediately apply my own case study given the volume of athletes that I see.

In my personal experience, I’ve worked with exactly 1,031 individual basketball players in the last 7 years.

*Disclaimer: The numbers below are completely empirical and of my own findings.

Of those players, 100 of them I trained for a consecutive 3 years, and an average of 87 training sessions a year.

Pre-Season: 3x a week

In Season: 0-1

Post Season: 2

Off-Season: 2-3

Moreover, my higher level athletes (NCAA D1 & Pro’s) I would see a minimum of 3x/ week.

In my time working with these athletes, they would play an average of 75 games a year!

Based on this information, I conducted a personal case study.

I’m going to take one player, a female athlete who plays for the University of Michigan.

I worked with this particular athlete for 4 consecutive years, no breaks, and had the pleasure of watching this athlete blossom into one of the best players in the country.

Her parents came to me in 2015, and gave me very specific guidelines as to what they were looking for. I ensured them they would get that and some.

 

The Results (in a year, each block was about 13 weeks)

Type of Work

Pre – Season

In Season

Post Season

Off-Season

Games

12-16 (1-2x/week)

40

14 (spring AAU)

30-40 (AAU+ live)

Skill Session

75-100 (4-5x/week)

50-75 (3-5xa week)

24 (back to 2x/week)

75-100 (4-6x/week)

Training Sessions

36 (3x/week)

13x (1x/week)

36 (3x/week)

36-50 (3-4x/week)

Yikes.

You’re talking about a 16 year old girl. The wear and tear on the body is irreversible. That’s over 100 games, 300 skill sessions, and 135 training sessions a year.

The pro’s play 82 games a year and possibly 100 if they make it to the finals. Sprinkle in intermittent practices and skill sessions.

We deem “Load Management” as a term to help athletes “recover” between games to help increase the chances of high level sustained play.

In reality, in my opinion, LM is the realization of the wear and tear of everything that happened before the player made it to the NBA. As the data above shows, the long-term effects are detrimental.

Now, there is no evidence that leads up to believe that a player’s youth is responsible for LM, but it certainly raises eyebrows.

 

 

The Youth Sports Injury Epidemic: Part 2: Early Sports Specialization 

Spring is already upon us. 

Spring Training has passed and athletes are ready to gear up for spring sports as we speak. 

Last week, I talked about how I believe youth athletes are playing too much within their respective sports. 

In the second installment of the Youth Sports Injury Epidemic, I want to talk about the second problem we face in dealing with Youth Sports, EARLY SPORT SPECIALIZATION. 

As sports performance coaches at Varsity House Gym, we have one of the most challenging jobs. 

We are responsible for the physical development of these young athletes, but at what cost? 

We have parents paying us to “kick their asses”, we have leaders of authority telling us we have to hit certain numbers in the weight room, and we have the pressure of trying to be perceived as “hard core.” 

This perception of making it to the next level has bled down to our youth athlete’s culture. 

 

The Reality of Early Specialization 

Parents, coaches, and athletes alike, are under the impression that in order to get a scholarship one must specialize early in sports to gain a competitive edge. 

I recently read an article by Derek Myles, a well known physical therapist who works primarily with youth athletes that further validated what I was seeing on a daily basis working with athletes 6-10 hours a day. 

In his findings he found that in the United States 75% of families have at least one child who participates in organized sport. Early sports specialization continues to rise with 12% of children under the age of 7 participating in sport in 2008, representing an increase from 9% in 1997. Now 3% may seem small, however, these numbers were extrapolated from more than 12 years ago. 

In Brian Kelly’s ESPN Article, he states, “A majority of youth athletes begin playing “organized sports” before they even speak! 

In my line of profession, basketball is still KING of youth sport specialization. 

Baseball and soccer start off fast, but by the time kids reach age 9, basketball has become the most popular competitive sport, according to the SFIA’s regular/frequent count. 

Meanwhile, two sports played largely by one gender — football for boys and volleyball for girls — grow fast from ages 11 through 14 but never come close to catching up.

Even through age 17, basketball remains dominant because both genders continue to play organized ball. 

 

What Defines Early Sport Specialization? 

As guidelines for coaches, parents, and those who are leaders to youth athletes, here are some parameters as to what “Early Specialization” actually looks like: 

Myles found that, Jayanthi et al define “early sports specialization” as: “intense, year round (>8 months) training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.” 

A recent review by Post et al sought to examine the association between early sport specialization and risk of injury. 

While athletes exceeding greater than 8 months of participation in a single sport experienced the greatest risk of injury, athletes who participate in greater than 8 months of any organized sport were also at an increased risk of injury. Two other variables also correlated with increased risk:

  • Participation in more hours of organized sport per week than the age of the child (i.e. a 12 year old participating in more than 12 hours/week
  •  Greater than 16 hours/week of organized sport in general.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), released a 2018 report, that stated high school males have a conversion rate (i.e., progressing from high school to collegiate sport) varying from 12.4% in lacrosse to 2.9% in wrestling. 

For females, the highest rate is 24.5% for ice hockey, while the lowest is 3.8% for basketball.

Basketball again being the “hardest” sport to play in college. This is due to only 2-4 scholarships being available for D1 sports and playing the numbers game of trying to make a 15 spot roster over other highly qualified basketball athletes. 

If an athlete does not play in college and decides to play at local state school, the average scholarship is only $10,400 per year, according to US News. 

Assuming you are a coach in the industry who is immersed in sports culture, you know how much parents will spend on their child in hopes that they will play in college. 

Conversely, it is not unheard of for parents to spend $1000/month on coaching, tournaments, travel, and food for their kids. 

In my experience, I have had hundreds of conversations with parents asking if their child could start training as early as 6 years old.

One point I try to reiterate to parents is the mere fact that most athletes who go onto play collegiate sports DO NOT specialize early. 

 

A Potential Solution 

Another study by Post et al examined a cohort of athletes from a major Division I university. Of their athletes, only 16.9% specialized by their freshman year and 41.1% by their senior year. 

This means that of the athletes at this university, over half were multi-sport athletes coming out of high school.

The study further identified that athletes who began early sports performance training we’re 67% LESS likely to get injured, played longer, and went on to play collegiate sports. 

As physical preparation coaches, trainers, and parents we are constantly facing an uphill battle. It is our job to ensure we properly educate our youth, ensure they don’t play too many games, and most important begin to train as early as possible. 

At Varsity House, we’ve trained thousands of youth athletes, and we’ve NEVER had an athlete get hurt working with us at our facility. 

We understand how to balance too much playing volume and early sport specialization with our research, empirical experience, and structured training. 

 

Early Sport Specialization  

As sports performance coaches we have one of the most challenging jobs. We are responsible for the performance of these young athletes, but at what cost? 

We have parents paying us to “kick their asses”, we have leaders of authority telling us we have to hit certain numbers in the weight room, and we have the pressure of trying to be perceived as “hard core.” 

This perception of making it to the next level has bled down to our youth athlete’s culture. Parents, coaches, and athletes alike, are under the impression that in order to get a scholarship one must specialize early in sports to gain a competitive edge. 

I recently read an article by Derek Myles, a well known physical therapist who works primarily with youth athletes that further validated what I was seeing on a daily basis working with athletes 6-10 hours a day. 

In his findings he found that in the United States 75% of families have at least one child who participates in organized sport. Early sports specialization continues to rise with 12% of children under the age of 7 participating in sport in 2008, representing an increase from 9% in 1997. Now 3% may seem small, however, these numbers were extrapolated from more than 12 years ago. 

In Kelly’s ESPN Article, he states, “A majority of youth athletes begin playing “organized sports” before they even speak! 

In my line of profession, basketball is still KING of youth sport specialization. 

Baseball and soccer start off fast, but by the time kids reach age 9, basketball has become the most popular competitive sport, according to the SFIA’s regular/frequent count. 

Meanwhile, two sports played largely by one gender — football for boys and volleyball for girls — grow fast from ages 11 through 14 but never come close to catching up.

Even through age 17, basketball remains dominant because both genders continue to play organized ball. 

In a study done for the United States Tennis Association Don Sabo looked at data from 2006 to 2010 via an annual survey of about 50,000 students a year and found that 40 percent of adolescent boys and 25 percent of girls play competitive hoops. Soccer and track are the next most popular with both boys and girls, followed by swimming.

Basketball may be the leading force in the youth sports epidemic, but according to DiFiori et al, as of 2013, 60 million youths in the US between the ages of 6 and 18 participate in organized sport.

As guidelines for coaches, parents, and those who are leaders to youth athletes, here are some parameters as to what “Early Specialization” actually looks like: 

Myles found that, Jayanthi et al define “early sports specialization” as: “intense, year round (>8 months) training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.” 

A recent review by Post et al sought to examine the association between early sport specialization and risk of injury. 

While athletes exceeding greater than 8 months of participation in a single sport experienced the greatest risk of injury, athletes who participate in greater than 8 months of any organized sport were also at an increased risk of injury. Two other variables also correlated with increased risk:

  • Participation in more hours of organized sport per week than the age of the child (i.e. a 12 year old participating in more than 12 hours/week), an
  •  Greater than 16 hours/week of organized sport in general.
 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), released a 2018 report, that stated high school males have a conversion rate (i.e., progressing from high school to collegiate sport) varying from 12.4% in lacrosse to 2.9% in wrestling. 

For females, the highest rate is 24.5% for ice hockey, while the lowest is 3.8% for basketball.

Basketball again being the “hardest” sport to play in college. This is due to only 2-4 scholarships being available for D1 sports and playing the numbers game of trying to make a 15 spot roster over other highly qualified basketball athletes. 

If an athlete does not play in college and decides to play at local state school, the average scholarship is only $10,400 per year, according to US News. 

Assuming you are a coach in the industry who is immersed in sports culture, you know how much parents will spend on their child in hopes that they will play in college. 

Conversely, it is not unheard of for parents to spend $1000/month on coaching, tournaments, travel, and food for their kids. 

In my experience, I have had hundreds of observations with parents asking if their child could start training as early as 6 years old. I also know I am not alone. 

One point I try to reiterate to parents is the mere fact that most athletes who go onto play collegiate sports DO NOT specialize early. 

Another study by Post et al examined a cohort of athletes from a major Division I university. Of their athletes, only 16.9% specialized by their freshman year and 41.1% by their senior year. This means that of the athletes at this university, over half were multi-sport athletes coming out of high school.

As physical preparation coaches, trainers, and parents we are constantly facing an uphill battle. We are being hand money to train youth athletes in an attempt to help the parents aspirations of their child playing collegiate sports. Contrarily, if we turn away their child we are pushing away business that helps the livelihood of our families. 

Where can we find balance? 

Adam Menner

Adam Menner

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