Updated: Jan 6, 2019
It is not uncommon today for kids to play on multiple teams in a single season, whether on separate sports teams (a basketball team and a baseball team in the Spring) or multiple same sport teams (playing on two baseball teams in the Spring). The number of kids playing any sport year-round, in addition to a second sport, is common to see these days with such things as Winter baseball leagues, Summer basketball leagues, year-round soccer and hockey clubs, etc. Each year, it seems that younger and younger athletes are being pushed into playing more and more, with hope of seeking better than average improvement. When have you ever heard of a 9u AAU team before a few years ago? Now, most programs have them across all sports. The theory is that if you play more games and have more practices it will lead to more athletic development and performance success. But is this rat race mentality and simplistic approach really the answer?
From my personal experience coaching dozens upon dozens of athletes ranging in age, talent, and sports over the last six years, it is becoming increasingly alarming the rate at which young athletes are experiencing overuse injuries. Each year, I get more and more calls from parents asking for help because their child has been injured playing sports. When did a Little League Shoulder (growth plate injury) become so common in youth baseball that it now has its own designation? Torn ACL's, Tommy John surgeries, and stress fractures in the spine are unfortunately commonplace in younger athletes, as well. These types of injuries are expected in 35-year-old professional athletes who have participated in vigorous athletics for most of their lives, not in 10 to 17-year-old amateur athletes. Why is this happening at such a drastic rate? I believe this question can be answered by looking at our culture of more is more: more games lead to better performance and more practices lead to better athletes. However, when taking a deeper look into athletic performance development, it is clear that this method does not yield long-term success.
Single-Sport Year-Round Athlete
There are several problems with this "more is more" approach. Let's first take a look at athletes who play a single sport year-round. The most common setback for these athletes is to experience some sort of overuse injury during their young careers. Whether it is constant knee issues from running around on the soccer field, sore pitching elbows on the baseball diamond, or constant twisted ankles on the basketball court, we have all seen these types of injuries. These, among other similar types of injuries, occur because playing so much of the same sport does not allow an athlete to be properly conditioned. When we participate in the same activity or sport, we train certain muscles to move in certain patterns to execute a skill. When all we do is play that one sport, the same muscles are engaged and the same movement patterns are executed constantly. A skeletomuscular imbalance results as parts of our body or movements in our body are generally stronger than others, while other parts of our body are tighter and movements are more restricted. This directly results in overuse injuries such as stress fractures, torn tendons and ligaments, and growth plate injuries. For athletes who play their sport year-round, the same muscles and joints are being used over and over again, breaking down with minimal recovery time and no strengthening process. When one body function or part is fatigued, not only is that area at risk of injury, but since other muscles need to overcompensate for this weakness, we increase the likelihood of further injury to other areas of our body as well.
Single-sport athletes who play their sport year-round have substantially less time to athletically condition not only to minimize risk of injury, but to also improve athletic performance. The time it takes to properly condition athletes by building muscular strength, increasing functional mobility, maintaining optimal flexibility, and allowing for full-body recovery in the off-season cannot be under-appreciated. Athletes who participate in a sport year-round do not give themselves an off-season to dedicate solely on athletic development. There is also no time that allows for the neuromuscular system, skeletomuscular system, and endocrine system to rest and reset. An athlete who has no off-season will simply not develop the athletic coordination and physical abilities to perform their sport to the best of their capacity.
When we start to look at neurological connectivity and function in athletes, we see that a lack of neural plasticity occurs with constant repetition of the same movement activities. The nervous system does not create new neural pathways to increase signal efficiency from the neurons in our brain when we are constantly repeating the same task. Although the pathways between the neurons that are required to function to complete the specific task will continue to strengthen, new neurological connections will not be made or maintained without new and different movements or practice. Athletes that experience and learn numerous diverse movements allow their nervous system to create new neural pathways increasing neurological growth and coordination, therefore leading to more capable and athletic athletes. We can also mention the mental break needed from a sport from time to time when discussing brain function. Constant repetition of the same movements can grown mentally tiresome, especially when physical plateaus are reached. Without taking time away from a sport, an athlete's ability to overcome struggles and mentally persevere may be compromised. Not only does our physical body need time to rest, but our mental health needs time to recover and be challenged in other ways.
Athletes Who Play on Multiple Same Sport Teams in the Same Season
Athletes who play on multiple same sport teams concurrently run into very similar issues that year-round same sport athletes do. Overuse injuries are prevalent and hastened. The same process of experiencing an overuse injury is expedited as athletes receive twice (if not more) the amount of same muscle movement repetitions, as would an athlete playing on just one team. This drastic increase in the amount of repetitions of similar movements with even less recovery time results in the massive break-down of the muscle fibers, creating weaker joint stability and compromised structural integrity; this is an injury waiting to happen.
In-season conditioning is also necessary for athletes as part of a maintenance plan to sustain athletic health and performance. Athletes who play on multiple teams at the same time do not give themselves time to properly perform an in-season maintenance plan while also allowing for enough recovery time. While operating in a constant break-down fashion, an athlete's body spends all of its free time trying to rebuild. More times than not, young athletes are asked to perform high-level athletic tasks when they are not fully recovered which results in further break-down of muscular, joint, and skeletal health. Not only is the young athlete not able to fully recover, but now that athlete has no time to safely and effectively athletically condition to maintain strength, stability, and support. This deadly merry-go-round is a sure-fire approach to athletic injury.
Athletes Who Play Multiple Sports at the Same Time
When we look at athletes who play on multiple teams of different sports at the same time, we still see overuse injuries. Although athletes who play different sports experience multiple diverse movement patterns and muscle engagements, they still run into overuse injuries. The reason for this is similar to an athlete who plays on multiple same sport teams at the same time: there is just not enough time to achieve proper athletic development combined with an abundance of similar muscle movement repetitions. With the commitment of multiple games and practices each week for each team, we cannot possibly squeeze in proper recovery time with in-season maintenance programs to counteract the stress on the body. Even athletes who play one sport each season need to be careful when there is overlap between seasons for a couple reasons:
Complete athletic training in preparation of the new sport may not be feasible as the athlete still has a full game and practice commitment with their other sport.
Any sort of in-season maintenance program will be on hold due to the rigors of playing two sports concurrently.
If all we do is play games and perform sport-specific movements during practices, regardless of whether it is one or multiple sports, comprehensive athletic development takes a back seat.
The Benefits of Playing Multiple Sports
There are certainly positives to playing multiple sports throughout the year for young athletes. As mentioned previously, different sports allow for multiple diverse movement patterns and muscle engagements. This is very important for not only our muscular and skeletal systems, but also for our brain and nervous system. New neural growth through new motor movement patterns and new cognitive learning (such as in-game strategies, plays, and situations) is vital for reaching athletic prowess. Playing multiple sports also provides a social advantage as young athletes can experience playing alongside numerous other athletes and working with different adult coaches as opposed to the same athletes and coaches in the same sport year-round. Achieving a balance between playing multiple sports in the same year while allowing enough time to have an off-season to work on athletic conditioning and an in-season muscular health and maintenance program will lead to the most athletic success for our young athletes.
A Shift in the Times
We used to play one sport a season to learn new functional movements, improve athletic coordination, and fulfill our social needs. Now, many kids only play one sport year-round. We also used to play outside with our friends, making up new games with our own rules and in-game strategies. Today, many kids don't play outside nearly as much, but rather rely on structured sports for their sole physical activity and on online video games to get their social fill. We also used to have a gym class where going through gymnastics obstacle courses and running around the track were the norm. Sadly, many school districts are drastically cutting gym requirements to spend more time teaching to standardized tests.
In a world in which every kid is an all-star or can play for that "elite" team as long as Mom and Dad can cut the check, it creates an illusion that youth athleticism is alive and well. The truth however, is that many kids just aren't that athletic any more. As a coach, it is amazing to see how many young athletes cant bend over to touch their toes with straight legs, do a pull-up or perform a multi-level functional movement, yet they will play 80 games in a year for one sport. It's sad to see a 14-year-old freshman have to undergo the knife for tears in his posterior labrum as a result of pitching for two teams in a season because his dad wanted him to be a better pitcher. It's unfortunate to see an 18-year-old having her fourth knee surgery before going off to play college soccer because she was never instructed to stretch after games and practices. It's detrimental for two other high school baseball players to have to spend the entire Fall, Winter, and Spring to rehab from Tommy John surgery when they both aspire to play collegiate ball. And it's mind-boggling to have two 12-year-olds sit out from games and practices for Little League Shoulder while parents and coaches are just interested in when they can come back to play instead of taking a look at why these young athletes are in this situation to begin with. These injuries, among others, are what let me to write this article today.
Why should kids be more athletic than what they are? I've seen enough "elite" AAU practices and they aren't that impressive. There is no semblance of complete athletic conditioning involved in athletic team programs. Many teams leave the warm-up, if they even have one, to the kids to perform on their own, having them do static stretching as a warm-up (which is wrong!). Even less do I see consistent after-practice or after-game stretching routines to properly begin the cool-down and recovery process. Young athletes have little to no guidelines on athletic conditioning, either in-season or out. All they have been told is that if you play more of the same sport, you'll be better. You may get slightly better at executing sport specific movements, but you certainly will not maximize your ability to perform in your sport to your potential. Practicing and playing a sport is only half of the athletic equation. Negating the other half is not setting up our young athletes to be successful.
Like everything in life, balance is the answer. Instead of taking the approach that more games and more team practice results in more athletic development and sport performance, take the opposite approach of less is more. Concentrate on quality and efficiency instead of solely on quantity. Taking 150 half-hearted swings a day does next to nothing for athletic performance gains, whereas taking just 25 focused, intense, and well-executed swings a day goes much further.
Playing on a team is a wonderful thing. As athletes, not only do we get to do something we love to do, but we get to learn new things. We learn new sport specific movements, strategies, and plays. We learn how to cope with failure and adversity and how to sustain consistent success. We learn how to interact with teammates and coaches and how to rely on others. But we also should learn about our bodies, and what it takes to keep us healthy and performing our best. Below is a brief list of things that should be accomplished to minimize the risk of athletic overuse injuries while also maximizing athletic development and performance:
Take time off when needed.
This can be as simple as a complete day off during the week, or a two-week break where you do nothing at all.
Make sure you train your body to withstand the rigors of a specific sport.
The off-season is the time to do this as we can train hard without having to worry about being fully prepared for athletic competition. Create a plan of what you want to accomplish and how you will accomplish it and know that the off-season gives us undivided time to do so.
Participate in an in-season program focused on maintenance of strength, functional mobility, and flexibility.
This program is not as intense as your off-season plan but is vital to for sustained health and performance throughout your season.
This program includes proper pre-sport warm-up, post-sport stretching, active recovery days (mobility work), passive recovery days (complete days off), and lighter intensity strength building.
Do not rush coming back from an injury.
Instead, figure out where deficiencies were in your training program and make adjustments. Always have your long-term goal and approach in mind, especially as a young athlete. Time is your friend, but spending it on the DL constantly does not work.
Put a priority on time management and efficiency of your practice and training sessions.
It is easy to waste time and not be as productive as we can be. Just because we put in a lot of hours, does not mean we put in good quality work.
Not Sure Where to Start?
On our website, is a free four-week full-body neuromuscular workout for athletes, parents, and coaches. This workout is a great introduction to the beginnings of a complete off-season workout plan no matter what sport you play. It includes proper warm-up, balanced strength training, and correct post-stretching. Please stay tuned for more athletic training workouts on our YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram pages including instructional videos on in-season maintenance plans. stabilizing muscle group stability exercises (i.e. shoulder rehab programs), and in-season stretching and mobility routines.