By Danny Jackson
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. Soccer Nation publishes Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
As we’ve recently explored, the past few decades have really advanced the game of soccer, emphasizing the use of technology and sports science to maximize athletic performance.
Elite sports labs are continually studying new training methodologies, and the Internet has made cutting-edge sports research and regimens more readily available to everyone. The premier athlete’s body is now intensely measured and tracked; heart rate monitors urge speeding up or slowing down. Technology dictates how hard to push, how much we can take. We all have a better understanding of the human body and how to most effectively build strength, flexibility and endurance.
The upside is that today’s elite athlete is stronger, faster and more powerful… like a fine-tuned machine. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering where it will all stop: how much quicker can a human run? How high can we jump? Are we pushing too hard?
Speculation aside, there is one very real danger in this highly-competitive performance-obsessed approach: its trickle-down to our youth. In our culture, where professional sports are woven deep into the fabric of our daily lives and fantasies, the pressure on young athletes to excel can be crushing. And it seems to be affecting younger and younger kids.
This intense pressure, with its laser-like focus on performance and winning, can have both physical and psychological repercussions on kids, who frankly aren’t built for adult training – mentally or physically.
It’s becoming more widely recognized that injuries, overtraining and burnout amongst young athletes is a growing problem in this country. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics focused on the issue, observing that the number of children playing organized sports has grown considerably in the past two decades and that single-sport, year-round training is becoming increasingly common.
As superstar youths turn pro earlier and achieve high-profile success, their peers are being driven at younger ages to hop on the same track, whether it’s to a college scholarship, the Olympics or pros. The pressure can come from stereotypical, ambitious sports parents and/or from those for whom youth sports is a business: premier coaches and trainers. A promising kid can feel expectation from all angles.
But the Pediatrics report emphasizes a well-known fact that parents and coaches can lose sight of: depending on the sport, only .2 to .5 percent of high school athletes ever make it to the pros. That means far too many youths are exposing themselves to injury and burnout for little to no pay-off.
Ironically, the report also details that youth who play multiple sports – and take reasonable breaks for training and competition – are more likely to enjoy sports longer.
I myself grew up training intensely, in competitive youth soccer in England. And I can say – in my own experience – that when you’re in that world, it feels normal. It was really fun to compete hard at an elite level, as a youth. But I also felt the level of competition built sensibly as I developed, each step leading logically to the next. The pressure did not feel inappropriate or unbearable.
If you asked my father how my training looked to him at the time, he might voice a different opinion. And now, as a parent myself, I do wonder where our focus on enhanced performance is going, if our kids will be driven harder and harder at increasingly younger ages. I have no doubt that a premier 12-year-old player today is working much harder than in 1985. And will work even harder in 2015.
Now, there’s so much money in the pros – so much potential reward – everyone’s looking for stars younger and younger. The whole track is moving back, with very young kids focused on college, and junior high kids dreaming of the pros. Young teenagers are training like professionals, with all the new training philosophies and theories impacting the landscape of youth sports.
With so much information readily available to amateur coaches, implementing the wrong training techniques and diet can have consequences. The Internet is a hotbed of advice, literature and information. But using information the wrong way, or believing everything online as fact, is a mistake many people can quickly make.
Doctors hate when patients walk into their office, and provide a potential diagnosis and treatment of their ailments based on what they found through a Google search. As coaches, you must be mindful of what you read, and even more careful when executing your training regime. We all want to provide our players with the best environment to train and give them the opportunity to maximize their potential. But how we do that – that is important.
The premier athlete is ultimately a commodity, and sports is big business. Pro athletes must perform because someone is always coming up behind them, hungry for their place. Now, the same demand and expectation is put on youths; the same cutthroat elements of the game are being pushed down to younger ages. Because youth sports is a business, as well. Some clubs remain focused on fun and recreation, but many are competing fiercely for players and championships. They have a strong desire to improve, and they base their reputations on the stars they create. Players are treated like pawns, moved around for maximum success.
Kids are also naturally more mature now, exposed to so much more through media and social media. I do believe that many highly-motivated youth athletes also seek out information on training, and push themselves to try new methods. Immersed in the world of premier sports, they think their highly-competitive model is normal. And the culture supports their dreams; when we were young, we had to imagine massive success. Now, everyone is much more tuned into its feasibility (reality-based or not). The guiding ethos: everything is achievable and attainable, with hard work and the right resources. Elite athleticism used to seem like sci-fi, now it’s considered attainable.
For example, over the past 25 years, we’ve seen more and more dietary supplements introduced to the human body. But the body can’t suddenly replace fruits and vegetables with a pill. The same goes for a young player’s body. Evolution has refined us over thousands of years, and we should be conscious of when we start to fine-tune the human machine. It takes time to adapt, and introducing new concepts should be well-designed and thought-out.
We can train an already developed body to be better, stronger and faster. But we must be careful with kids. They can’t be guinea pigs, and their health shouldn’t suffer for instant results on a sports field. Reading something on the Internet and then applying it to your group of 12-year-olds is a risk. Peaking at 16 is not what anyone wants. But just like a balanced diet helps fuel the body, a well-refined training methodology can create a gradual uptick in performance and ability, allowing players to maximize their abilities at the right time.
It’s a wise coach who can use new training methods effectively, recognizing the same track isn’t for everyone. Some kids develop faster and mature before peers; they might crave a more intense regimen. That could harm others. Some young athletes need a kick in the butt, some a pat on the back. Coaching should be customized for each kid.
The science-based approach minimizes the fact that athletes are highly idiosyncratic individuals; what works for one may not work for another, just as what works for a 17-year-old may be ruinous for a 10-year-old. (I, for example, can’t eat close to a game. Other players can down a cup of coffee and run on to the field.) Amateur coaches might want to help their U-10 and U-12 boys by applying methodologies they find online across the entire team, but that’s not a good idea.
The bottom line is that we must guard against fine-tuning our kids’ bodies too much. We must remember the line between complete breakdown and complete success is thin. If we’re not careful, these players could suffer physical and psychological damage. We must remember that even the most talented, ambitious young athletes still have a kid’s mentality and developing bodies.
Kids’ muscles and bones just aren’t ready for adult training, even when their energy, strength and tenacity push them forward. Focusing on one sport, using their body in the same way repetitively, leads to residual fatigue and injury, experts warn. (Hence, the need for cross training.) If kids do weight train, they should use lower weights and do more repetitions.
Burnout is the consequence of overtraining. It can lead to chronic pain, fatigue and decreased performance, experts say. At the extreme, it can lead to quitting sports altogether – the nightmare of the pushy parent. Severe burnout suffered at a young age can also prevent athletes from pursuing sports and activity as adults, and can lead to a lifetime of negative issues around the experience: loss of self-esteem, disappointment and rejection of physical activity.
To protect kids from injury and burnout, sports doctors recommend limiting training to five days per week, with at least one full day off from organized play. They also recommend two to three months off per year from their main sport, to allow injuries to heal and minds to refresh, and to focus on strength training and conditioning that will help prevent future injuries.
Coaches can also fight burnout by keeping training and drills interesting, challenging and fun. There must be a constant awareness that all players are different, both mentally and physically, and coaches need to make necessary adjustments. Encourage players to focus on wellness, listening for their bodies’ cues to slow down, take breaks or alter methods. Experts also advocate playing multiple sports, but not at the same time. Well-rounded young athletes suffer fewer injuries and play sports longer, statistically.
These are just a few suggestions we in the youth soccer community can consider to help protect premier players from the dangers and pressures of overtraining. After all, we owe it to our kids to help them get the most out of their youth sports experience – physically, emotionally and mentally – and inspire them to a lifetime of healthy physical activity and wellness.