Instead, force them to play every single sport.
Wait, don’t do that either. But one sport per season is not only completely feasible, there is good reason to believe it’s the best plan for long-term success in athletics, or fitness, or health, or life. You gotta think long-term!
Kids are not the same as adults. (Duh.) When we say kids, we usually think of middle schoolers and high schoolers, but adolescence really extends all the way to age 25. (Remember that while your favorite college basketball player has full-sleeve tattoos and can dunk from the free throw line, his brain is still in kid-mode.) So training kids the way we train adults simply won’t work.
While most high school athletics associations will determine their track and field champions in the coming days, I can’t help but think how many of the best athletes are missing out so they can play football or basketball every month of the year. I know this because the kids I try to recruit to compete in running, jumping, or throwing tell me so.
But this doesn’t make sense, either from a physiological perspective or from a common sense, whose-interests-do-I-really-care-about perspective.
Physiologically, kids need to develop a comprehensive skill-set, musculoskeletal structure, and energy system. Think about it: would you only do leg extensions to get stronger legs? Of course not; you would look silly in jeans and your knees would constantly ache.
The same is true of developing the whole athlete. Without changing sports and training stimuli, overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout will likely happen. And these things stay with kids for the rest of their lives – think stress fractures, arthritis, and mood disorders – ouch.
One of the absolute best things that any athlete can do to improve her game – but especially a younger athlete – is to develop neuromuscular coordination. That improved ability for the brain to move muscles translates to strength, power, speed, agility, and even endurance. In every sport. And a great way to improve neuromuscular coordination over the long term is to play multiple sports.
Playing soccer will improve your footwork for basketball. Playing basketball will improve your lower leg muscular endurance for track. And track & field will give you that extra gear to sprint through your triathlon.
It’s important to remember that, physiologically speaking, athletes don’t get better by competing. You don’t adapt during training. Those training adaptations that make you run faster or jump higher take place during recovery. Competing year-round does not allow for recovery or adaptation. But running track can be your recovery from basketball. Soccer can be your recovery from cross country.
Kids also need confidence. So much of athletic success at every level comes from feeling good emotionally and psychologically. Playing one sport year round contributes to mental staleness. Competition after competition can kill confidence if there aren’t clear signs of improvement. And there won’t be any improvement without recovery.
This is why some of the best distance runners were great basketball players. Or the best football players were great hockey players. Multiple sports and training plans for young people promotes satisfaction and improves performance.