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Taking Time Off From Sports Important For Kids, Not Just the Pros

Jason Varitek gets one. So do David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and LeBron James and just about every other professional athlete on the planet. But more and more youth athletes don't get one, even though their growing bodies need one even more than the pros.  What am I talking about?  An off-season.

Time off is important for your child, not just from sports, but from all organized activities. The off season is what will help create balance and help give your child time to regroup and refresh, both in body and mind. The pros do this, and so, too, should your child!

What Is an Off-Season?

Even if you buy into the notion that pro sports are a template on which to model youth sports (when, in fact, they are fundamentally different in so many ways), one has to ask  why all pro sports get an off season – and a big one – but youth sports do not. This is not an academic question at all but a practical one and one that impacts the very health and well being of our kids.

In fact, the lack of an off-season is an important symptom of just how out of control youth sports has become. It’s an even bigger mystery why community-based coaches and parents fail to heed the cries of young athletes whose bodies and minds are screaming out that enough is enough, as evidenced by the record numbers of overuse injuries and the high rate of sports burnout. 

It really isn't any mystery why so many youth athletes these days are getting injured.  Fully half of all youth sports injuries are overuse injuries, the direct result of three factors:

1.      Kids being pushed too hard in sports in general

2.      Kids not being allowed to rest after an injury

3.      Kids not being allowed to rest after a season -  i.e. not having an off season!

The concept of an off season is simple. Practice and play hard during the season but spend time off  away from sports doing something different. That’s why you see so many pros playing golf in the off season! Indeed, Brian Grasso, Executive Director of the International Youth Conditioning Association, says the off-season is so important that he takes the view 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 Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts,  who has trained all levels of athlete from youth level to Olympic level, 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."

For proof as to the need for an off season, one needs look no further than the injury rates we are witnessing in today's youth sports. Dr. Pierre D’Hemecourt, Pediatric Orthopedist at Children’s Hospital Boston, reports “an exponential rise” in overuse and repetitive use injuries over the last decade. Like Grasso and Cressey, he feels the 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?

A Recipe for Success

It may help you to conceptualize a child’s developing body as 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.  Skip an ingredient, add too much or too little, 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.  Labeling a child as a star athlete before puberty is complete is like awarding a baker the best recipe for a cookie before the cookies are out of the oven.

During puberty, growth rates accelerate, hormones change strength and physical changes occur. 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 as puberty draws to a close. Once puberty ends, all kids have to get used to new height and strength and girls have to get used to a completely new body shape altogether. This process of acclimation takes a bit of time and is why we see many so-called "late bloomers" in sports: older teens who only come into their own in sports later in high school and in college.

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 developing. 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 finally make the varsity team as a junior. And, that’s when his true skill started to shine. The Boston College football team's star kicker, Steve Aponavicius, didn’t even play the sport until his sophomore year in college! He was a solid athlete and decided to just to try something new.

Many sports are starting to take a more developmental approach; this is why soccer now has smaller fields and teams for younger players, and players hit off a tee when just starting out in baseball and softball. Bigelow would like to see modifications in other sports as well. For example, he suggests  3 on 3 for youth basketball instead of the 5 on 5 basketball we all see on TV. Bigelow is quick to remind parents that the athletes  we see on TV are the elite athletes at the top of a very pointy pyramid. 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.”

Sample, Don't Specialize

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”, he notes . “Let them create their own rules. Give them balls and a racquet and let them decide how to wack them over the net”.  I love the concept of kids creating their own rules.  Try it with your kids and just let the fun unfold.

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