With the summer youth sports season in high gear, millions of boys and girls across the country are participating in sports camps, clinics and tournaments. While they have been competing in a wide range of sports, many of them focused on organized competitions in one sport rather than skill development and play.
As an ex-NBA player and general manager with family members who have played a variety of sports professionally and a sports medicine physician with more than 20 years of experience working with athletes of all ages, we are well aware of the many potential benefits of youth sports participation. Youths participating in sports have opportunities to enhance self-esteem, socialize with peers and improve general health and fitness, setting the stage for an active adult lifestyle.
Like so many other parents of young athletes, we also have seen firsthand that youth sports today are very different from a generation ago. Youth sports — including basketball — increasingly involve two unfortunate trends. First, a greater percentage of athletic time for boys and girls is devoted to structured competitions. Second, youngsters are frequently pushed to specialize in a single sport. These changes have come at the expense of children having the chance to play multiple sports, develop sound fundamental skills and play some sports simply for enjoyment.
The NBA — like every major sports organization — encourages children to be active and to play our game. But we also recognize the need to re-evaluate the current culture of youth sports in this country and acknowledge the opportunity for major sports organizations to bring attention to, and possibly foster change on, this important issue. As part of our expanded Jr. NBA youth basketball program that will tip off in October, the NBA is creating a platform that will emphasize skill development, teach the team values of basketball and focus on the health and wellness of young athletes and fun for all.
Efforts like these are important to combat the increasing focus on structured competition at young ages and early single-sport specialization, which can lead to overuse injuries, loss of interest in participation or burnout.
Recent publications from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine have cited the underappreciated short-term and long-term consequences of overuse injuries — some of which can end a budding career before it really begins. These same issues can reverberate into adulthood, resulting in a less-active lifestyle.
Perhaps surprising to some, there is evidence that playing multiple sports during childhood and adolescence is more effective than single-sport specialization in developing successful athletes. Existing scientific data suggest that early single-sport specialization actually might be detrimental to long-term success in team sports. Such findings might be related to the pattern recognition and skill transfer that takes place among young athletes who participate in more than one sport.
So what can we do about a youth sports culture that increasingly pressures boys and girls to play one sport year-round and causes parents to feel that their child will be left behind if they don’t go along?
For starters, young athletes should:
• Be exposed to multiple sports. For any athlete to be successful he or she must love to play, which cannot be forced. Exposing kids to multiple sports increases their chances of discovering the inner passion that is essential for success.
• Avoid playing a single sport competitively year-round. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine recommend delaying sports specialization until at least age 10.
• Focus on skills development rather than structured competition. Developing fundamental skills early increases success and ultimately love for sports.
Note that while each sport and athlete is different, limiting training volume is important. For example, among high school athletes, training more than 16 hours a week has been associated with an increased risk of injuries requiring medical care.
Be aware that rest is a part of training. Experts recommend at least one day of rest each week from organized training and competition.
This summer, let’s celebrate the kids who will give their all on fields and courts across the country, thank the coaches who generously give their time and salute the parents who support their children in exploring their passion for sport. But let’s also begin working together to help young athletes stay healthy, avoid burnout, have fun and set the stage for a lifetime of physical activity.
Dr. John DiFiori is from the UCLA sports medicine program and NBA Director for Sports Medicine and Kiki VanDeWeghe is the NBA VP of Basketball Operations.