Workout of the Day

Dear Parents and Coaches: Your Child Athlete Needs More Athleticism, Not Specialization

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You know there’s something wrong when a 14-year-old high school sophomore takes the mound with the characteristic inner-elbow scar of Tommy John surgery. And you especially know there’s something wrong when this characteristic scar isn’t an uncommon or shocking sight on pitchers, youth or pro (1,2).

The increasing occurrence of Tommy John surgeries in pitchers is just one example of the growing issue of early sports specialization. Look at the Tommy John statistics, the number of youth ACL reconstructions, the regularity of stress-fractures, and the stress and burnout that teenagers experience as they commit dozens of hours every week to practicing and competing in one sport. In a philosophical respect, this is a misunderstanding of the value of youth sports and athletics; and in a practical sense, this is poor preparation and unnecessary risk. Pre-pubescent children are being enrolled in intensive training camps, practicing thousands of reps (pitching, kicking, swinging, running plays, etc.) every month, and practicing only one sport year-round, all while neglecting to develop any modicum of well-rounded athleticism. While there’s nothing wrong with sport-specific training camps, skill development, or strong interest in a particular sport, the volume and intensity of these practices create a potential for injury and burnout that is, in my mind, absolutely unacceptable, particularly in younger athletes. We’ve come to a point where we see the 9-year-old boy as a pitcher, not as an athlete or as a child.

This issue derives from two problems: an obsession with early-life sport specialization (generally in the hopes of driving prodigious success at said sport) and our neglect of general physical preparation, particularly in youth athletics.

The solutions, fortunately are simple.
We need to train the athlete first and the sport second. Before we begin asking children to perform hundreds or thousands of reps of a specific, ballistic, high-stress movement, we need to prepare them to move safely and effectively. This is where the GPP (General Physical Preparedness) that we love to talk about comes into play. This athletic preparation means developing stability and strength in the joints, developing safe movement patterns, moving through full ranges of motion, developing a baseline of conditioning, and training balance in the athlete.

The purpose of a GPP practice is to improve performance and to protect from injury. Parents and coaches sometimes forget about the first benefit and all-too-often forget about the second.
I remember, in my time assistant coaching strength and conditioning for high school athletes, being told that a specific athlete (a pitcher) was prohibited from performing any upper body strength work in an effort to “protect his shoulder.” On the rare occasion that he was allowed to perform any upper body work, he would perform some half-range-of-motion bench press, again, in an effort to “protect his shoulder.” He trained for baseball year-round and was discouraged from playing any other sports. Oh, and his shoulder and elbow hurt all the time. Weird, I know.

Somewhere along the way, a huge population of sports coaches got the idea that they need to keep their athletes out of the weight room to “keep them from getting injured,” and that a better use of time was more reps on the field of play. They have no qualms about strapping an oversized helmet onto their kid’s head and telling him to go out and make contact with other armor-clad bodies, but they still see strength and conditioning as the dangerous activity. This type of practice, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of what the athlete needs. A good GPP program will help the athlete develop strength and conditioning that will improve sport-specific performance, will train movement patterns that will carry over into athletic performance, will develop strength and balance in the athlete to protect from injury, and will give the athlete an opportunity to work on being an athlete in a way that doesn’t involve burnout-inducing repetitions on the field.

This refocusing on GPP and stepping away from early-life sport specialization is a task that both coaches and parents need to take responsibility for. In addition to allocating time and resources to building the athlete first and specializing in sport second, our youth athletes can benefit tremendously from playing a variety of sports. This not only gives kids an opportunity to train in a variety of movements, create balance, and maintain athletic motivation and interest (read: fun), but it gives them exposure to a variety of sports so that they can have a conscious say in what sport they would like to focus in on (if they do want to focus on one sport) down the road. I would argue that when a child “decides,” at 8 years old, that the only sport he’s interested in is football, he’s not really ready to make that decision (assuming he is the one that made the choice). Most of all, it gives kids a chance to be kids. As exciting as it would be to be the parent or coach of 12-year-old mini Randy Johnson-esque prodigy, a pitching career should not be ending at age 16 from an entirely preventable overuse injury.
We can do better.

- Preston Sprimont


2/22/17

  • Spend 10 minutes working on ring muscle-ups, muscle-up transitions, pull-ups/dips

  • Every 4 mins for 5 rounds:

    • 5 axle bar deadlifts (275/185)

    • 100m sprint

    • 15 KB swings (53/35)