When I was a teenager, summer ended Aug. 11 -- the first day of high school football practice.
In stifling humidity and heat already present at 8 a.m., we high school football players would begin our annual first-practice ritual of 100 situps, 100 pushups, a 1-mile run and a seemingly endless stream of observations about how weak, lazy and out of shape we were. That amused the cross-country team running past our grassy practice field, which had become a haven for horseflies and ragweed in the 10 months since we had last played football there. Most of us fall athletes spent our winter playing basketball, wrestling or swimming. We picked up our baseball gloves, track cleats or golf clubs for the spring sports season that ended when summer vacation began.
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Most of today's high school athletes don't have any concept of that schedule. The Illinois High School Association sets rules for when teams can start practice, limiting the length of practices and even dictating what goes on at those practices. But travel teams, private instruction, camps, weight-training and conditioning programs are yearlong activities for many young athletes. It's a rare kid who changes sports with the seasons.
"Unfortunately, that's the way it is," says Jason Sacks, executive director of the Chicago branch of Positive Coaching Alliance, a national organization that preaches a goal of making sports more rewarding for athletes, coaches and parents. Turning a sport into a year-round activity leads to "the harm of specialization" and "the overuse injuries" that come from "playing the same sport over and over again, using the same muscles over and over again," Sacks says.
Many suburban kids are especially prone to that.
"The rate of serious overuse injuries in athletes who come from families that can afford private insurance is 68 percent higher than the rate in lower-income athletes," concluded a study presented in April by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi and the Loyola University Medical Center. Kids with private insurance instead of Medicaid also are twice as likely to specialize in one sport, the study added.
Athletes who spend twice as much time in organized sports as they do just playing for fun are more likely to be injured and have serious overuse injuries, concluded a study presented at the 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition. Experts agree that focusing on one sport all year long leads to problems.
"At the young age, kids should be playing as many sports as possible." Sacks says. But youngsters who happen to be bigger, stronger, faster or more coordinated than their peers may get pushed into joining travel teams and focusing on one sport. That takes a toll mentally as well as physically.
"I've heard from middle-school kids who say they used to love soccer, but now it's a job," Sacks says, adding that more than 70 percent of young athletes give up organized sports by the time they are 13. "Kids will get burned out."
At last month's Positive Coaching Alliance's Coffee with Coaches, Northwestern University coaches Chris Collins (basketball) and Patrick Fitzgerald (football) talked about the value of letting kids play a variety of sports.
"I learned a lot from playing other sports," said Collins, son of one-time NBA All-Star and former Bulls Coach Doug Collins. "I understood what it was like to be a role player. It helped me in becoming a better teammate. My parents always made me have pockets of time where I got away from basketball."
A father of three boys, Fitzgerald agreed, "We're not going to specialize in the Fitzgerald household," he told the crowd. "Just have fun and enjoy it, and become a better person through sports."
That's not always easy in a high-school environment where kids can feel left behind if they don't focus on one sport. Many parents feel pressure to spend money and effort on the one sport that offers a child the best chance to succeed.
"I see young kids giving up other activities at too young of an age because of the dream that everyone feels their kid is going to be a pro," said Collins, who played basketball at Duke University and led his professional league in scoring while playing in Finland.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association notes that fewer than 7 percent of all high school athletes (and fewer than 4 percent of male and female basketball players) play that sport in college. The percentage of high school athletes who go on to play some level of professional sports ranges from 0.03 percent for male and female basketball players to 0.5 percent for baseball players.
"What do you want the sports experience to be?" says Sacks, who says the lessons that he learned running track and cross country and playing basketball in high school gave him life lessons that he still uses. "I know the power of sports, and what it can do."