The Unmaking of an Athlete: Part 2

Written by Jason Ferruggia Topics: Fitness

Originally written For Elite Fitness Systems in 2004

When Part One of this article was written a few years ago the focus was on college strength coaches. Unfortunately the unmaking of an athlete begins long before college. It starts at a very young age with uninformed but well intentioned parents. By doing what they think is best for their kids; many parents actually end up destroying their children’s athletic futures. For this story to be complete we have to go back to the beginning.

The father of three high school aged boys I used to coach is one such example of the type of parent I am referring to. Paul is a father who lives vicariously through his kids and demands that they excel in whatever sport they play. He picked wrestling and baseball as their chosen sports to specialize in from a young age. The reasoning for this, he told me, was that “White kids have a much better chance of achieving greatness in those sports than they do in football or basketball.” Fun was not an issue; the improved chance of long term success was all that mattered. Whether or not they liked football or basketball was of no concern to him, he picked their sports and that is what they would play.

They were in several baseball leagues and a number of wrestling schools, often rushing from one to the other, inhaling a fast food burger for dinner in the car between practices. On many nights after they went through their training sessions with me they would go home and be forced to do several hundred more pushups and sit ups. This was because Paul didn’t like my approach of keeping their training sessions under an hour. He thought the volume was too low and they needed to do more. Other nights they would have to run a few miles or take a couple hundred swings in the batting cage.

I explained how the long distance runs were detrimental to size and strength gains and actually had no benefit to either wrestling or baseball because they train the wrong energy system. He refused to listen. When I told him I would have to stop training his kids if they continued to do this, he told me it would stop but snuck it in behind my back. These kids were not allowed a normal social life, because athletic excellence was the number one priority in their lives. The father was banned from Little League baseball and several other town organizations. He was an embarrassment to his children and himself but he didn’t care.

On his final trip to my gym, Paul pushed me too far and I had to escort him out of the building and ban him permanently from the premises. He took his kids with him and I haven’t seen them since. I hear they are working out in their basement and doing more running in a day than Forrest Gump. The sad part is that these are two great kids who have had their lives and athletic careers destroyed by an overzealous parent.

Last week I received a phone call from the mother of a baseball player. She told me her son was a standout shortstop with a great arm who never misses a ball. The only problem, she said, was that he really needed to improve his first step out of the batters box and get just a little more power behind his swing. She said that he needed intensive sport specific training for baseball on a one on one basis.

She was convinced that I was the man that could help him and that with his added speed and power he would be the next Derek Jeter in no time.

Squeezing in the time to train with me would be tough, she informed me, because he is currently playing in three leagues and takes hitting lessons four nights a week in the batting cage they just installed in their backyard. He also goes for two linear speed workouts and two lateral speed workouts a week. Even with all that, he will make the time, she assured me, no matter what it takes. When she finally took a breath and allowed me to speak, the first question I asked was how old her son was. Without hesitating she told me that he was NINE!

This is a trend that we see happening way too often these days. It seems that early specialization is the latest craze sweeping the country. According to a recent news report, the training of young children is now a four billion dollar industry which is growing rapidly. Gyms are popping up with kids weight training programs and speed and agility camps every where you look. It’s on television and talked about on the radio. Unfortunately most of the coaches associated with these programs are just trying to cash in on the latest fad and haven’t a clue as to how to properly prepare an eight year old for his or her athletic future. Parents have been persuaded to believe that they have to get every kind of coach, trainer, and instructor they can find to help give their kids an edge over the competition. They put them in six different leagues at once all in the hopes of creating the next Michael Jordan. Start them early and they will be destined for greatness. After all, it worked for Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters so it will work for your kid too.

Right?

Wrong.

Early specialization in any one particular sport is, in fact, the worst thing for a young child. It actually does more harm than good to their athletic skills. Playing baseball during the spring, football in the fall and basketball throughout the winter will do more to create the next Ken Griffey Jr than only swinging a bat and fielding fly balls all year will. The athletic carryover a young athlete can get from playing a wide variety of sports is huge. Playing as many sports as possible allows kids to develop an enormous capacity of motor skills.

Each sport has different athletic demands and requirements and forces the athlete to call upon different types of strengths, energy systems and neural capacities. NBA superstar Allen Iverson has said he was a better quarterback than he is a point guard. NFL quarterback Michael Vick was a multi sport star throughout his childhood and never specialized in anything. By developing the skills necessary to be an all around good athlete, a child can be better prepared to specialize later in his or her teenage years when it becomes necessary. As my friend and youth training expert, Brian Grasso says, “You have to become an athlete first, before you can become a champion.”

Another thing that needs to be addressed is the concept of “sport specific” training for young athletes. The bottom line is this… there is no such thing as sport specific training! I repeat…there is no such thing as sport specific training! Especially when we are dealing with young kids.

All athletes have similar needs which include improving strength, speed, and flexibility as well as preventing injury. When you think about it, most sports have the same requirements. Some of the common needs of most athletes are the capacity to stabilize the core properly and protect the body from injury, the ability to quickly decelerate and change direction, and the potential to rapidly produce and absorb force. Train hard, train smart, and get stronger. That’s all there is too it. There is no need for anything “sport specific” at an early training age.

Of course, as an athlete gets into his later teenage years he may need to start to implement certain things in his training that may be individual to his sport but this is often the exception and not the rule. The case of pitchers avoiding certain pressing movements is one such example. Hockey players needing to correct the imbalance between the vastus medialis and vastus lateralus that occurs from doing a lot of skating, is another. When over use injuries or imbalances occur from a specific sport they need to be addressed. But for the most part, if kids would focus less on the exact “sport specific” exercises they need to do to improve their jump shots or swings and instead focused solely on getting bigger, stronger, and faster, they would be much better athletes.

In countries such as Russia and Bulgaria, early specialization is looked down upon and avoided at all costs. These countries laugh at the notion that the United States has the best ten year old soccer player or best eight year old tennis star in the world. They know that it doesn’t matter what a kid can do at a very young age because that rarely correlates to long term success or Olympic gold. These countries have learned that early specialization is a recipe for disaster. The Process of Achieving Sports Mastery (PASM) is a system that is used in Russia to create super athletes. The odd thing about it, to most Americans, would be the fact that it forces kids to play as many sports as possible and does not allow for early specialization. Athletes usually begin training programs at age six with a focus on a wide array of running, jumping and tumbling type drills. An athlete can not begin to specialize in a particular sport until at least fifteen or sixteen and in most cases, eighteen.

Through years of research, the Soviets have learned that early specialization results in a much higher incidence of over-use injuries and mental burnout as well as a great deal of inconsistency in an athlete’s performance. They prefer a “multilateral” approach, forcing kids to play as many sports as they can. The children are watched closely and assessed as they mature. Finally, when specialization becomes a necessity in the later teenage years, the athletes will have developed a wide variety of athletic skills and will not have suffered the mental burnout that comes with trying to master one sport from a very young age.

The take home message to parents is to let your kids have fun. They are kids after all. There is no need to try and make them the next Wayne Gretzky just yet. Let them play several sports and learn to enjoy them. If parents put too much pressure on their children, the sport is no longer fun. It is supposed to be a game, not a life or death situation. Kids only learn what we teach them. If children are taught that the pee wee football game on Saturday afternoon is supposed to be a blast, then they will have a blast. But if they are taught that it is a high pressure, can’t lose situation, it will no longer be fun. And when it’s not fun, the chances of them wanting to play long into the future are slim.

Everyone understands the desire to want what’s best for their kids. It’s only natural do all you can to help your children succeed. Sometimes, however, it might be what you don’t do that can actually make all the difference in the world.

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