Why Kids Should Not Train to Race Year Round

In youth sport after youth sport, the year-round club model is taking hold for children before they reach their tenth birthday. Indeed, making the club team for sports such as soccer and softball is more important than the local high school team for many athletes. The athletes that participate on the clubs often receive very high levels of coaching, though that is not a given. AAU basketball, for example, is more about showcasing talent for colleges than for skills development. 

The single sport emphasis of today's athletes arguably hurts their athletic development, and actually leads to more injuries. In a study presented by authors NA Jayanthi , C. Pinkham, and A. Luke, titled THE RISKS OF SPORTS SPECIALIZATION AND RAPID GROWTH IN YOUNG ATHLETES, they found a significant correlation towards specialized athletes and injury rates. Another study, done by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), supports the same conclusion, arguing that the increase in overuse injuries is reaching epidemic proportions.

In both studies, it was the level of organized activities that correlated most with injury rates. That organizational bent usually was the result of early specialization, which added time to the training activity on the assumption that more and early work would lead to improved skills. It also led to highly repetitive drills that created overuse injuries.

In recent NFL drafts, 80 percent of the players taken in the first round were multi-sport competitors in high school. I've talked with coaches, both at the D1 level and at high schools, most prefer athletes with a varied sports background. Rick Riley, in a conversation we had last year, suggested part of his success in running came from the varied activities - swimming, hiking, bucking hay - that he did as a youth. Each built different muscles and trained the nervous system to respond to new inputs and made the whole stronger in the process.

The legendary Dr. Jack Daniels concurred, writing in his book Daniel's Running Formula that "all runners can benefit from breaks in training." Bill Bowerman, as reported in Kenny Moore's excellent Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, despised indoor track, feeling that it interfered with the necessary base building activity that a runner need to engage in while recharging the system. After the Munich Olympics, he gave Steve Prefontaine months off, telling him to just keep moving until the fire came back.

Which leads us to a second concern about year-round training and racing. Along side of the injury issues are recurring stories of athletes burned out by the process. When the simple act of running becomes a constant grind of training, with each run measured by the success of the training stimulus and not the pleasure, it turns to work. For some, that hard work is it's own reward, but the number of individuals that can function on a constant diet of stress is minimal. Most kids break down, either physically or emotionally. We lose two-thirds of our athletes from junior high to high school this way.

There is a season for everything and every season has an end. For too many kids, the training begins to resemble the ordeal of Sisyphus, forever pushing a boulder up the mountain, but never destined to reach the top. At some point, the labors must be over and the hero gets both the rewards of the effort, and a chance to rest briefly on his or her laurels with the competitive fire banked until it's needed again. When it is, the passion will return and the athlete returns to the task renewed and stronger.

To quote Pat Tyson, head coach at Gonzaga, speaking of the goals for young runners, "Number one is just to gain a passion for running. To love the morning, to love the trail, to love the pace on the track. And if some kid gets really good at it, that's cool too."

It's a great quote and shows that Pat Tyson has his priorities solidly founded on bedrock principles. There's a reason he won multiple state championships at Mead High School and is beloved by his athletes. It's not my favorite quote, though. My favorite from Pat shows how uncomplicated it can be and simultaneously deep.

Love the run.