Should Your Kids Play One Sport or More?
The Key to Success in Baseball May Be Playing LESS of It!
What happens when you play one sport year round? Boredom can set in, and a sport you once liked can turn into 'work'. Parents today often push their children to specialize in one sport. College scholarships and the big money in pro sports are the impetus. Yet no studies have shown year-round training improves a young athlete's level of skill. It can be difficult to convince parents of this because they see results by making young kids practice often.
"Relatively speaking to the other kids, they seem better at that point," says Hall of Famer Cal Ripken. "But physical development hasn't taken place yet. Because a kid practices more now doesn't mean he'll have an extra leg up later. It'll depend upon his talent, and ultimately upon his desire inside."
Studies do show there are two dangers in specializing too early - burnout and overuse injuries.
Most pro ball players played several sports while growing up, and didn't specialize in baseball until their senior year of high school or until college. Ripken played soccer, basketball, and baseball. "My dad encouraged us to play other sports," says Ripken. Even after he began in the minor leagues Ripken played basketball at every opportunity, and used it as his off-season conditioning for baseball.
Dewon Brazelton, a former pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres, played baseball, basketball, and ran track. "I made good grades because of sports," says Brazelton. "Whatever season it was, the sport was the reason why I existed." Because Dewon played three different sports all through school, he never suffered from burnout.
Jerry Hairston, utility player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, played basketball and baseball through high school. Jerry's father and grandfather played big league ball, but he never felt pressured to play baseball year 'round. "My dad never coached any of the teams I played on. He wanted me to have fun. He never forced the game on me." Jerry only played baseball in the spring.
Brian Roberts, second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, suffered from burnout twice, once in high school and again in college. "l did it every day, over and over for years. If you do anything that long you'll get burned out." Both times a break from the sport was the remedy.
Signs of burnout include irritability, sleep problems, lack of appetite, weight loss, inability to concentrate during practice, fatigue, and persistent muscle soreness. Ask yourself this question: Do you dread going to practice? If the answer is yes, you need a break.
Cross-training is the best way to improve conditioning for the young baseball player, ages 5-13. Mark Verstegen, owner of Athletes' Performance, in Phoenix, Ariz., and performance coach to many Major League ball players, recommends kids think about the ABCs when trying to decide which sports to cross-train with. A = agility, B = balance, C = coordination, S = speed. The ABCs are vital skills needed to become a good baseball player.
Soccer is great for developing speed. Many good infielders grew up playing it, including Ripken. Basketball, volleyball, and the martial arts are also complimentary sports for enhancing baseball skills. "My basketball legs made my baseball legs better," says Ripken. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids cross-train as well as take time off from athletics for brief periods to rest growing bones and muscles.
Conditioning is one key to preventing injuries. "If you stay in shape year-round," says Ripken, "you never have to worry about getting back in shape." The second key is rest. Insufficient rest after an injury begins a cycle of overuse injuries to muscles and bones. Overuse is to blame for about half of sports injuries in middle and high school students.
Roberts suffered a partially fractured vertebrae during his sophomore year of high school. "We never determined the cause of the injury, but I think it was because of overuse," he said. His dad spent 23 years as the baseball coach at University of North Carolina. Brian played spring and fall baseball, as well as working out with his dad year round, failing to give his body proper rest from the sport. This had serious consequences. "The doctor told me to rest for six to eight months and play no baseball. I missed my entire sophomore season," he said.
Verstegen's message is "work + rest = success."
"What is the limiting factor to performance?" asks Verstegen. "The body's ability to recover. This is why some people reach for unethical means [steroids] to help the body recover faster." The body's need for rest is obvious, but it's the last thing on the minds of coaches and parents. "You can work hard," says Verstegen, "but you must take time to recharge your batteries." Check your schedule to see when you can take days off from baseball. You can be active. Do a good all-over stretch when watching TV or taking a study break. Take a bike ride, swim, do yoga or pilates. Be sure there is no pounding involved.
You need a psychological relief from the sport on rest days. Don't think about baseball. Go to the movies, hang out with friends. Relax!
Get in water. Take a bath, get in a hot tub, or take a shower and use hot and cold contrasts to promote muscle recovery. Follow the ratio 2 to 1. Two minutes hot water, one minute cold.
CONDITIONING FOR TEENS
Off-season training prevents injury during the regular season. Programs should address conditioning, strength-training, and flexibility. In baseball your dominant side takes the brunt of exertion - one shoulder, the lower back on one side, and one leg. The body gets imbalanced if you only play baseball and do no other conditioning activities. This leads to long-term injury. Strengthen the muscles you need for baseball - specifically the core of the body, or the torso.
"When I was in high school I needed to put on weight and gain strength, but I don't think I realized then how important baseball specific exercises were," says Roberts. Brazelton said he didn't have time to go to the gym. "I always went from one sport to the next, and some of it overlapped." He used other sports as his conditioning for baseball.
Hairston said he did some weight training in high school, but not much. "My conditioning for baseball was basketball," he said. "l used basketball to develop my speed and quickness."
A COACHES ROLE
Youth coaches make a great commitment to a team, but it's also a big responsibility. Verstegen says youth coaches can learn how to better organize the conditioning aspects of team practices.
"Coaches should begin with one movement skill drill that helps to improve kids' range, agility, and footwork. Running poles will not help the kids. They are much better served by taking the whole team, dividing it into two groups, and playing a game of tag. It's one of the best conditioning activities and they'll have fun." As the kids get tagged out they can go to the sidelines and do a pillar bridge, five quality pushups, or five squats. Coaches should remember baseball is not a 'fit' sport. Conditioning activities must be built into practice.
A fun way to begin practice with younger kids is to run the bases. "Running the bases is a skill kids need to learn - the direction you run, where to run, and when. There is some teaching you can do while incorporating conditioning into practice," says Ripken.
Two important elements essential to conditioning are eating frequent meals and fewer processed foods. Eat breakfast every day. Grab a mid-morning snack - half a sandwich, an apple, or nuts for example. Be sure the food includes carbs and protein. Around noon have lunch. Have another snack before you practice. This is the most critical time to eat for teen athletes. During practice you will have greater endurance and concentration if you have a snack beforehand. As soon as practice is over have dinner. Verstegen also recommends a snack before bed if you have eaten well during the day. Just be sure it isn't something high in sugar content.
WHAT ABOUT THE PROS?
Many pro ball players focus on strengthening their core by training with Verstegen at his facility. Brazelton got involved with Athletes' Performance while playing in the Arizona Fall League. A month after the season was over, he would work out twice a day four days a week until Christmas. In January, he would return to Tampa and work out with the team's pitching coach. By the time spring training began, Dewon was in much better shape. "I wanted to be ahead of everyone else, be in shape and game ready."
Brian takes six weeks off at the beginning of the off-season. Then in the middle of November, he will train three days a week, in December five days a week, and in January six days a week.
During the off-season, more than a hundred Major League ball players head to Athletes' Performance to follow Verstegen's program six days a week in preparation for spring training.
What are the keys to success? Follow the pros' advice to avoid burnout and overuse injuries. Your dream of playing pro ball is more likely to come true if you're healthy and retain your love for the sport.