Football is a sport that draws from a wide variety of skills, including flexibility, strength, agility and speed.
For young players, these traits can be developed through different activities – both organized and recreational.
With increased specialization beginning earlier than ever, parents often face a difficult choice when helping young athletes reach their peak performance: Focus all their energy on one sport or let their kids try different things?
For Brad Hatfield, chairman of the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland, the approach is simple.
More is better.
“If a child puts all of his or her efforts into one sport, not only do you run the risk of overtraining and lessening the child’s potential, you also have the chance that the sport becomes stale for the athlete,” said Hatfield, a member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee. “Variety in the physical demands of sport training is often a good thing because it prevents overtraining – which can hurt performance – and it lessens degrees of physical and psychological exhaustion.”
USA Football recommends youth players – especially those ages 8-14 – play multiple sports in order to fully develop as an athlete.
Track and field, swimming and gymnastics are common activities aspiring football players can participate in to incorporate a well-rounded approach to development.
“Different sports bring different demands,” Hatfield said. “Think of it as different links in a chain. If one area of athletic performance is weak, that can slow one area of growth. By doing other sports, those links are going to be addressed.”
The method is known as periodization. By blending different activities at varying intensities, it benefits muscular strength and growth.
Used first by track and field athletes and body builders, the theory has become the norm across most sports.
“Having an athlete, a young athlete in particular, focus on just one sport doesn’t necessarily set him up for a successful career in sports,” said Brian Thompson, a performance specialist at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.
Thompson said concentrating on just one sport can sometimes be damaging to a developing body.
“We see more overuse injuries associated with playing just one sport. You get repetitive movement over and over all year round,” Thompson said.
Hatfield said “active rest” also is important to an athlete’s routine. These are activities that promote calorie expenditure and cardiovascular conditioning but often are just for fun.
They can be as simple as playing a game of tag – which promotes agility – or swimming at the local pool to increase strength.
“For some kids, doing things just for fun are really good ways to actually help them perform better,” Hatfield said. “There is no question that specificity and focused training needs to be there during the season, but like everything else, there is a point of diminishing returns.
“We are not trying to turn football players into swimmers or cross country runners, but reasonable amounts of those sports will make them better football players.”
How long of a mental break a player needs between the end of the football season and re-starting offseason drills depends on the age and maturity level of each individual, Hatfield said.
“Some kids are prodigies at certain sports. Others blossom at a later age,” Hatfield said. “You need to find their balance."