By BARBARA ESTEVES-MOORE
There is something distinctly different about today’s teen athlete – both the casual and the serious: not very many of them just play sports around the neighborhood.
Today’s young athletes tend to only play organized, coached sports.
So, what does that mean for our teens and their bodies?
Mack Chuilli, founder and CEO of Traction Sports Performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, trains athletes from the casual to the professional – including many athletes preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and Major League Baseball’s coming season. This summer, he worked with the U.S. Women’s Soccer team training in his facility. He has seen it all when it comes to athletes trying to reach the big time.
Full disclosure here, Chuilli is my cousin. I watched him grow up playing sports from Little League baseball to the family football games in my grandparent’s front yard. Chuilli is also the parent of two children (though not yet teens), so he knows both sides of the coin. In addition to training high-level athletes, Chuilli runs all kinds of youth sports programs through Traction and he coaches his own children’s teams.
“It’s very rare that kids just play pick-up baseball or a football game with their friends in the neighborhood like we did when we were kids,” he said. “In today’s day and age, that’s non-existent. Everything is an organized sport, structured and coached. And there’s an expense to it.”
“Kids no longer have the free spirit of playing sports,” Chuilli said. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that parents are scared. I know my wife is scared for my kids ride their bikes around the corner like we did as kids. Now everybody wants to be in a safe, structured environment when they’re playing sports. And that’s kind of where we are in 2018.”
So as a result, teens who are interested in sports find themselves in organized sports year-round. The organization and the coaching is not the issue, Chuilli said. The sports themselves are the same sports we all played as teens and younger, but what is different is that truly athletic teens become highly specialized in their sport at a very young age.
“I think specialization has become a problem,” Chuilli said.
As a parent I wondered how it helps or hurts teens physically to play a single sport year-round? I have read a few things about over-use injuries becoming more common in younger and younger athletes, so I asked Chuilli what he sees in his daily interaction with athletes.
“Playing multiple sports as a kid is what really helps you develop athleticism and create some balance,” Chuilli said. “Now there is year-round soccer, year-round baseball, basketball, volleyball. The only one that really seems to have it figured it out, ironically, is football. Football is the one where everybody knows, ‘Hey you play football in the fall then they just work out in the spring and in the summer.’ Every other sport has found a way to play ten, eleven, twelve months out of the year.”
When a teen is playing baseball four to five times a week after school, 11 months out of the year, that can be a potential problem when it comes to injuries.
“The injury statistics of youth athletes run right parallel with the specialization of sports. If you just look at the statistics of injuries compared to when specialization started, you can see the clear-cut rise in injuries when the rise of specialization occurred. Those numbers can’t be denied,” Chuilli said.
It is true that kids are more athletic today. And because they specialized in one sport, they play better at a younger age, but at what cost?
“The kind of Catch 22 to the whole thing is 13-year-old athletes are way better in 2018 than they were in 1998,” Chuilli said. “And because of the tremendous athleticism, the risk of injury is much higher.”
So as a parent of a teen athlete how do you navigate these highly competitive waters?
“The argument between performance and injury prevention is always the main debate. What is the risk and reward and how do you teeter that line is the question?” he said. “The problem is most parents have no idea how to teeter that line and they just push for the performance results and they are not really familiar with the situation.”
For example, he said, a teen baseball player who is throwing hard at 14 is more likely to suffer some kind of injury before he is 18. Whereas the kid that might not be throwing a baseball as hard at 14 could be throwing harder by the time he reaches 19 because he had time to develop at a more normal pace, possibly with fewer injuries and less strain on his growing body.
“We try to educate parents first and foremost on overuse. What we find, and I give this speech all the time, is a parent will spend $100 an hour for a kid to have a pitching lesson but won’t spend $100 a month for his kid to get physically fit. They think that ultimately by learning the proper pitching mechanics and working on the throwing the baseball that the kid is going to become a better pitcher. Whereas truthfully, if you take the same kid and you have him run track or play basketball or play soccer or something that keeps him active and keeps his muscles growing and keeps him training in a balanced fashion that’s going to make him become a better athlete and it is going to do a better job” for his pitching career.
According the Traction method, the best way to develop young athletes is to balance out a teen’s regimen based on what sports he or she is playing. So, if a teen is playing baseball two days and on weekends year-round, the best option for training is to look at all the movements that athlete is doing within a given week and try to supplement those movements to make sure he or she stays healthy.
“We look at mobility, strength and any physical weakness and make sure the body is prepared for that sport,” Chuilli said of his assessments.
Education is the key, he said. And, another key is to be able to assess each child individually.
Chuilli said knowing when to put your child into a program for training means looking at the whole child and what he or she likes to do. If your child is cheering in the fall, playing softball in the spring and soccer in the summer then he would never recommend that child to one of his training programs. That child is well-rounded and getting enough athletic activity to develop and grow strong. However, if you have a child who just plays football in the fall, then a training program might help him in the off season.
The objective of a training program for young athletes is to gain strength to avoid injuries, Chuilli said. When sports become competitive, there is the potential for injury due to different levels of strength among the athletes playing together. A very strong, muscular football player can injury a skinny, weak player easily. Chuilli said it helps for teens who are going to continue to specialize to build strength in all areas of their body.
“Can you run in a strong way? Is your core strong? Is your upper body strong enough to play sports? Can you control your body? Can you do push-ups? Can you squat properly? It all goes back to those physical fitness test we all took when we were young. The truth is that is really still relevant.”
Look at your teen athlete’s schedule, he said. Ask, what are they doing on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis? When is their off-season? What muscles are they developing while playing and what muscles need to be trained because they are not being used enough? Creating a balance and paying attention to developing the whole body helps avoid over-use injuries.
OK, so you’re thinking about now, my kid is neither super talented nor super interested in any sport. Should I push him or her to do some training or physical fitness activities? Chuilli said that for those teens, anything they like to do that is active is the place to find their exercise routine.
“The best way to get in shape and be healthy is to find something you like to do and do it often,” he said. “If you are doing something you love, you’ll do it more often. If you’re doing something you can’t stand, you’re not going to develop a life-long habit of that activity.”
- Doing 30-60 minutes a day of strength-building activity that is fun whether it’s running, golf, riding bikes, dancing, playing basketball, tennis or lifting weights.
- Find a balance. In a perfect world, there is a combination of strength and cardio training that takes place when teens are not playing an organized sport.
- Don’t forget nutrition. Chuilli said his standing rule is “if it comes from the earth, it’s good for you.” There are no Coke rivers or Skittle trees, he said, so avoid those foods. Keep it simple.
Next time, we will explore the elusive athletic scholarships many teens are after these days