The Exploitation of Youth Athletes
By Shane Trotter. Originally published on www.breakingmuscle.com
The world of youth sports has been infiltrated by con-men. Not only will they take your money, but they will also leave your son or daughter less powerful and more likely to be injured. While I’ve found the most honorable, giving, and caring people in my life within sports and performance training, there is a developing industry built on exploiting the desires of athlete and parent for financial gain, no matter the cost.
More Work Isn't Better Work
The foundation of this business model is the simple fallacy “If I do more, I’ll be better." "Trainers" and "coaches" swoop in, eager to point out that if the athlete is unwilling to put the work in (i.e., pay them), other more committed athletes will pass them by and get noticed by recruiters. It takes a mature parent to see the truth. In many circumstances we’re paying extra money only to break our athletes down and make them worse. Here are a few of the examples I've encountered with athletes I train:
- Volleyball clubs have moved their start date up to one month into the high school season. High school teams practice Monday through Friday, with games Tuesday and Friday. Club practice is also twice a week with long tournaments every weekend. Homework, sleep, the impact of repetitive jumping and landing or elbow pain are all irrelevant to many coaches. Their primary concern is their business, so they tell parents, “If your daughter wants to get recruited she needs to play for me like these other girls did.”
- Baseball pitchers who have been pitching a few days a week from January through August are coming into September to pitch in fall leagues and weekly showcases. After pitching hundreds of competitive innings, they are forced to pitch all out for recruiters and their radar guns. These pitchers are confused when I bring up an arm maintenance plan. Two words: Tommy John.
- My football program is the most advanced and intense I train. Everything is considered from relative intensity to neck strength to which days we use a single leg lateral, linear, or vertical movement. Recently, one of our most talented players was going to some guy's house to get "extra work." This young man works very hard in our program. He also is within his track season. This third-party trainer didn’t make any attempt to see what program the athlete was already following. Instead, he ran my athlete through a battery of KB squat swings (whatever those are), tire flips, sledge hammer slams, and battle ropes until my eager young athlete was on the verge of losing his lunch. The trainer claims to be an expert in “functional strength,” but as a result of his training, my athlete has lost ten pounds he couldn't afford to lose.
Nothing about these examples are in the athletes’ best interest. I've never received an email from a trainer asking me to send a copy of my program and yearly periodization breakdown. These "trainers" may not know they’re making the athlete worse and more prone to injury. It goes back to the most basic tenant of training: General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which means to apply an appropriate degree of stress on the body and then give the body time to rest and recover and it will be stronger. Inadequate recovery or over-training will lead to exhaustion and body breakdown.
This is why schools must hire qualified strength and conditioning coaches. If the coaches do too many things wrong, they will severely limit their athlete's development, or worse. There is only so much adaptation available to the body, especially with limited sleep and poor nutrition. What work is done and when and how it’s done must be monitored. Extra work not aligned with the program philosophy will only take away from any past training. With a good plan, athletes are less likely to be injured and will be stronger, more powerful, and faster.
Let Kids Play, Whether They're Going Pro or Not
Our screen-dominated society has created a generation of kids who are less athletic and have a far less-developed general skill set. This leads to more injuries and a lower ceiling for athletic development. No matter their technical skill, athletes can only get so much out of a body that does not know how to move correctly. Our kids can't skip, but they are seeing pitching coaches three days a week from age 10. They can't bear crawl, or do a push-up, but they play volleyball 6 days a week, 10 months a year. A culture that has de-emphasized general physical development and our intense focus on early specialization is a recipe for a burnt out kid whose future is littered with injuries.
John Smoltz used his hall of fame induction speech as a plea to parents to stop early specialization and year-round one sport play. His message: Let kids experience sports for the joy of experiencing sports-let them play. This philosophy will make them better athletes with a greater likelihood of reaching the "next level." Of the nearly 300 athletes taken in the 2015 NFL draft, nearly 90 percent were multi-sport high school athletes. An ESPN poll of more than 128 current and former NFL quarterbacks found that 122 were multisport high school athletes and 70 percent played 3 or more sports.
And it's not just football. The world-dominating U.S. women's soccer team was polled and found to have competitively played more than 14 other sports on their way to soccer stardom. Amy Wambach credits her legendary ability to box out and go up for headers to her time playing high school basketball. Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin built a college World Series champion program from the ground up. He believes playing multiple high school sports is one of the best things high school baseball players can do to develop athleticism, avoid injury, and bring a likeable personality to the clubhouse, and he recruits accordingly.
PARENTS MUST ARM THEMSELVES WITH INFORMATION AND BE THE MATURE PRESENCE THAT LOOKS OUT FOR THEIR KID'S BEST INTEREST.
A parent’s job is not to get their student a Division 1 scholarship or minor league tryout. Parents are not sports agents. Yet far too many make a full-time job of ensuring that all their son or daughter's free time is spent with private lessons, club practices, and training camps. The question that must be asked is: What is actually important when raising this generation?
Many parents and athletes are simply not in touch with reality. The vast majority of athletes will be done with their competitive athletic careers by age 18. Even if they play in college, after four years they’ll have to get a job. What have you done to prepare them for that transition? Will they look back at their athletic careers as a time of amazing friendships, life lessons, and a foundation for a future of joy in physical activity? Or was it eternal drudgery and battling with injuries? Honestly, their perception and preparation for life is mostly up to you.
Take Care of the Basics Before Shopping for Extras
Before you're tempted to pay for all the extras for your athlete, make sure you're meeting their basic needs. Students need eight hours of sleep and three solid meals a day with nutritious snacks in between. These two things will make far more impact to their athletic performance and happiness in life than another training camp. Families should have meals together at least a few days a week. Few things are more essential to the social, moral, and educational development of your child.
If the basics are covered and you want to move forward with paying an outside trainer or skills coach, ask prospective trainers how they will work in congruence with the work your son or daughter is already doing. Ask them if they will contact the sport coach to see what is being done each day. If they appear disinterested, or tell you this isn't important, walk away. Fast. They want your money and nothing else. A good trainer will never put athletes at risk just to make a sale.
An effective training session does not drain the athlete of everything in their tank. Instead, it seeks to stimulate a targeted adaptation while ensuring the athlete is better for the next training session or performance. If your son or daughter is an eighth grader and their first day with a trainer is not teaching relevant skills and instead features a gauntlet of tire flips, it’s time to fire that dude, and quick.
Don't Pay Extra to Make Your Kids Worse
The culture of showcases and year-round leagues may be a tougher nut to crack. It's time colleges honestly examine these organizations and determine whether they are good or bad for our youth. I encourage colleges to collectively boycott showcases and recruiting from select leagues at certain times of year. Showcases are only of any interest to the smaller, less competitive leagues. College recruiters are good enough at their jobs to find talent without these operations.
It's time we push back against the industry that has developed around youth sports, which so often strips athletes of their passion and parents of their dollars. We need mature, ethical, qualified people in the lives of our youth. More is not always better. Please help your athletes find balance and joy in their athletic development and please do not pay to make your athlete worse.