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  • Last updated Aug. 27, 2015

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It's a great time to be a young athlete. Participation in organized sports outside of the school day has reached all-time highs. However, just as every cloud has its silver lining, every rose has its thorns. Kids are specializing in sports far too early; our young athletes are competing, but not playing or preparing. As a result we';re seeing an increase in the number of youth sports injuries, mental burnout, and impaired motor development at crucial ages.

Children and Elite Athletes: Similar, but Different

Just like kids need to learn to ride a bike or read, they need to learn how to use their bodies properly; this is really the premise behind training. Training can improve reaction time and enhance functional capacity, so your athlete can move faster and more easily. And, a solid exercise stimulus can build bone density, decreasing osteoporosis risk down the road. Improving athleticism through training also has amazing effects on a young athlete';s confidence, and research has shown that athletic success has a favorable effect on your sprinter';s classroom performance.

Unlike elite athletes, kids are growing and not all activities are appropriate for them. 
This is true for all types of sport, whether recreational or competitive. For kids, injuries at young ages can have long-term impacts on their adult lives. A child';s nervous system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones respond identically to that of the elite athlete – just not necessarily on the same level.

Healthy Athletes are Better Athletes

Have you ever wondered why elite pitchers like Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens don';t pitch year-round? Simple. They need an off-season to address the imbalances their sports create, and correcting these issues requires a combination of time (rest) and appropriate weight training and targeted flexibility work.

Unfortunately, nowadays, many kids don';t usually get a true off-season. A Little Leaguer getting elbow pain from throwing year-round is no different than an adult with a desk job who gets carpel tunnel syndrome from typing too much. Truthfully, the Little Leaguer is worse off, as there is more force and velocity to each his movements and his body is still developing and vulnerable to injury.

Further, believe it or not, specializing in one sport too early on can actually impair a child';s development within that sport. According to Brian Grasso, founder and executive director of the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA):

Sport coaches who require young athletes to participate in one sport for extended periods of time are actually shooting themselves in the foot with respect to future ability. To learn complex skills associated with baseball, for instance, a young athlete will be restricted to what they have been exposed to and can neurally call upon in terms of practical athletic intelligence. A young athlete who has been exposed to baseball only, likely will lack the athletic dexterity necessary to perform advanced skills in that sport.

Protection Against Traumatic Injuries

Proper conditioning can also protect our young athletes from acute injuries. There is no better example of this “phenomenon” than the favorable effects of appropriate training on reducing the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. In a given season, 2 percent of all female basketball players will suffer this serious knee ligament injury. For those who are training correctly, the risk of that injury drops dramatically.

Take Home Messages for Parents

Many coaches, while well intentioned, haven';t been educated in how children develop, and that is part of the reason kids are pushed so far in sports. Until that changes, it is very important that parents take an active role in their child';s exercise and sports programs to allow for adequate variety, rest, and most importantly, fun.

Here are some points to consider for your young athlete:

1. Encourage variety! While some sports may require earlier specialization, it';s best for most athletes to avoid concentrating on only one sport until they';ve at least reached 11th grade.

2. Regardless of your child';s chosen sports, emphasize the importance of resistance training and flexibility drills. These general approaches should take place year-round – even in multi-sport athletes – to reduce the risk of injury, assist in motor development, build confidence, and enhance performance. Without resistance training and flexibility work, young athletes are competing on fumes, not conditioning.

3. Ask your son or daughter candidly if he/she still enjoys his/her sport(s). If the answer is no, look for alternative ways for your child to have fun while exercising. Remember, kids need to play, not compete. When pressure takes the place of fun, it';s time to take a break and put the fun back in exercise.

4. Overuse and traumatic injuries are a sign that the physical challenges imposed on your child have exceeded his/her ability to stand up to them. If these injuries are occurring, your young athlete needs a break in order to get healthy with some corrective exercise programming.

Eric Cressey is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Cressey Performance, with locations in Hudson and Framingham, Mass. He specializes in training baseball players and offers cinditioning tips and a newsletter on his website,www.ericcressey.com, and at his blog, www.ericcressey.blogspot.com.

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