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Madison, Wis. – All young athletes, no matter their age or skill level, share at least one thing in common. Whether they are on a state championship team or one that goes winless the entire year, all athletes' seasons end.
Cessation can lead to opportunity, though, as athletes look to the offseason to improve for future competition. But what is the best way to approach these offseason efforts?
Emphasize variety to become a better athlete
UW Health Sports Medicine athletic trainer and Sports Performance Manager Dave Knight, LAT, USAW, TPI, said that pre-adolescent athletes shouldn't focus exclusively on enhancing skills exclusive to their favorite sports. Instead, young athletes should develop an offseason training program that emphasizes variety and seeks to make the young competitor a better overall athlete, rather than a better baseball or football player.
"What we're really going to do," Knight said about preparing offseason training programs for young athletes, "is take malleable athletes and make them more athletic first, then eventually make them better players."
Knight uses a strategy of periodization – organizing the calendar year into smaller parts – when developing training regimens. He divides the offseason into segments of early offseason, middle offseason and late offseason, and assigns goals to each segment. The early offseason, according to Knight, is a perfect time to heal injuries and improve athletic potential.
An important element of early offseason is assessing the athlete's health. Was she plagued by injuries during the most recent sports season? If so, early offseason can be used to identify and address the causes of the injuries.
"The underlying issues for some athletes are imbalances they couldn't tolerate during the season that caused injury," Knight said. "We have to make sure we rectify those to get that person back to their top level."
Young athletes often compete in multiple sports, making one sport's offseason another sport's in-season. The temptation may be to cater a training program to that second sport's needs, but Knight prefers to build more versatile athletes and not sacrifice overall fitness and athletic ability in pursuit of one sport's specific requirements.
"At that age you're not participating in one sport five days a week," he said. "You should be doing other things. You can be participating in sport two or three days a week and doing something else two or three days a week, shooting toward physical activity six days a week, for 60 minutes a day."
A young athlete who has moved from tennis to basketball can diversify the activity from the, say, two practices and one hoops game in which she participates each week with a weightlifting and agility program that will help her improve in both sports. The approach will create a better athlete, in the generic sense of the word, and reduce the wear indigenous to two sports that place stress on the lower extremities.
In an era when even pre-adolescent athletes forego some sports to focus on one favorite, some parents and coaches may be concerned that an offseason program that stresses variety may hinder development in the sport that is the athlete's focal point. Knight disagrees.
"I'm a firm believer that early specialization hinders the long-term development of the athlete and may create asymmetries through critical developmental periods," he said.
Asymmetries are the sport medicine professional's code word for injury potential, and Knight uses the example of a young athlete who does nothing but train to become a better baseball player to illustrate the danger.
"If you're a right-handed batter and pitcher, every time you swing and throw, you rotate in one direction. All you do is rotate that one way," he said, adding that such undiversified repetition "creates a significant imbalance in how the body functions. When the body has imbalances, it's a spawning ground for injury."
'Mix and match' sports
Knight sees great benefit in "mixing and matching" sports. The aforementioned athlete could complement his baseball season by playing basketball, which places little stress on the upper body while developing the lower body.
"When you mix and match sports with different focuses, that gives you time off to recover," Knight said, and uses an analogy to which any parent can relate to punctuate his point. "Your kid may love candy bars, but it's our role as parents to say, 'You can't eat candy bars all the time and here's why.' We need to take the same mentality with sports and say, 'I know you love this sport and you can continue to play, but you're going to do other things, as well.' "
Those "other things" are what help young athletes become better athletes during early offseason training, establishing a foundation that leads to a natural transition to the middle offseason and preseason, during which Knight turns the training focus to more sport-specific needs.
"It's not to say sports-specific skills aren't important, but we have to find the time to do something else to unwind the athlete," he said. "Higher-level athletes may be more focused on specific goals and tasks, and younger athletes should be focused on athletic development."