Get PLA:YED — Part One

(Play, Learn, Attempt: Youth Enjoyment and Development)

I am currently a teacher/football coach for an economically depressed area in East Central Indiana. The factories moved out, drugs have moved in and recovery is slow. The city has lost over 2,000 residents in the past 20 years and is just now beginning to gain new blood into the community. Throughout all of this, we still have enough participation for a full middle school sports regimen, which includes swimming, wrestling, track, cheer, dance, basketball and football. All of these sports can matriculate to the local high school, which has a storied basketball, track and baseball history. The little league fields are full of wide-eyed children ages 4-18 for the whole month of June. Yes, we have our own league for all of those ages, and even have to add new teams each year to keep up with demand.

Why am I complaining? Why am I the one that tells parents to cool it down, get their kids to the slides, swings and open fields instead of the diamond, hardwood and gridiron? Sports specialization.

I can quote numbers and facts, and I will later, but the main reason I want my student-athletes to get PLA:YED is because of the voice in the stands that I hear on Friday nights… “You’ve got to block for heeem! How can my *Jack* play at ‘Bama when ya’ll can’t block the sun long enough to make a shadow?!?!?!?!”.

That voice belongs to one of our team moms. She informed me when Jack came out for 7th grade football that he was going to play “runninback for the University of Bama”. She very proudly stated the thousands they had spent on a personal trainer, football camps, special mouth piece, custom shoulder pads, brand new helmet… etc. I asked her what other sports Jack played. “The only sport that matters is football coach, you should know that.” Mind you, this child was getting ready to turn 13 in January of that year. His whole future was decided then and there, down to the script A he put over the heart of his shoulder pads and the elephant earrings she wore to each game. As a coach, I love goals. I have thousands, personal and professional. However, a goal to this extreme worried me.

Jack was/is indeed a great football player. He was short, thickly built, loved contact and was the fastest 12 year old I had ever seen. Close to beating me in a 110 yard dash, and I played college ball! His future was bright when we were in preseason and the first few warm-up games. Then some things happened he didn’t expect. He met other elite athletes, some that were bigger than he. He couldn’t out run them, couldn’t run them over and couldn’t intimidate them with his Roll Tide battle cry. Then the injuries happened. Knee, elbow, shoulder, jaw, finger, turf toe, concussion. When taken to the orthopedic specialist, the cartilage in his left knee had worn down over 30% and he had so much scar tissue in the other knee that he was put under the scope and given a round of Cortisone shots. Jack was becoming physically destroyed 45 carries into the season. He had over 700 yards and 9 touchdowns before we shut him down. Those numbers are not exaggerated; even for middle school football those are impressive.

Jack was brought down by a 30 hour work week, a goal his mother set for him to have 10,000 hours of dedicated football practice before he hit 18. Five hours a day dedicated to football, six days a week. At that age, if I spent five hours on something, my parents were happy I cleaned the house, fed the livestock, did laundry, dishes, homework and maybe showered.

Jack is indeed a phenomenal athlete; one that I believe could play for a FBS or low D1 school. But his mothers’ insistence on football and football only has locked him in to a perpetual cycle of injury and stress. What happens when he does not make the high school team? No offers for scholarships? All I can see is a scene from Friday Night Lights where Boobie Miles is crying on his uncles shoulder after he cleans out his locker. I do not want that for anyone. It was hard enough to watch when it was scripted.

Jack, and the other kids like him that played basketball, baseball or swam year around are why I instituted a policy of Get PLA:YED for my team two years ago, Play, Learn, Attempt: Youth Enjoyment and Development. I want my athletes to try new things, attempt to move new muscle groups. If you play football in the fall, try swimming or wrestling, if you swim in winter, run cross country or cheer. If you run, try the triathlon club or soccer. All sports can help with another sport. A study from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine showed that 88% of college athletes come from a multisport background. Vanderbilt baseball, who just won the College World Series, is famous for recruiting multisport stars. And it makes sense. More sports, more offers, more competition, more fun.

Jean Cote (Queens University, Canada) and Jessica Fraser-Thomas (York University, Canada) are leading researchers on performance and participation in sports. This is a brief synopsis of their recommendations:

Prior to age 12 — 80% of time should be deliberate play and in sports other than chosen sport

Ages 13-15 — 50/50 between chosen sport and other athletic or play pursuits

Ages 16+ — Specialization becomes more important, but 20% of training should be in non-specialized sport and deliberate play

This is how I have based my Get PLA:YED model. As a former recruit in two sports, I understand the want and the need for a scholarship, I received multiple in both swimming and football. But I also understood that I would get bored if I did only one sport. Sports become a job in college anyway. Why would I want to work for 6 years longer than I needed to? Put in extra hours every day for a sport that may not work out when I could just be outside, playing Frisbee or golf with my friends and still be getting conditioning and such? It didn’t make sense then, nor does it now.

As I write this from a hotel in Northern Indiana, I can see a little league team coming out of their rooms on their way to the 6th tournament of the summer. I asked a parent about their schedule. It starts in May and ends in August. The plan for 14 tournaments a year, average 4 games a tourney, which is at least 56 games in 4 months. Most college teams play anywhere from 45-60 games a year, depending on division and conference. These 8-10 year olds are playing a college season. Every year. For 8 years. That is the type of ludicrous schedule that I aim to curtail with Get PLA:YED. If we can get more athletes to play secondary or tertiary sports, imagine the possibilities of your failing basketball team, your track team that hasn’t won county in 15 years, your wrestling team that hasn’t been to conference in 5 years? The Jamison twins would be great swimmers, you’ve seen them at the lake… but they only play lacrosse. That 6-2 post player in middle school can’t handle a ball, but only wants to play basketball, imagine how great a wide receiver he could be. We all do it, project great players in one sport to another. Lebron James played two sports in high school. He was a consensus 5 star prospect as a wide receiver, tight end and defensive end. And was picked number one overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. I would say he specialized in dedication to himself, and becoming the best athlete possible. Ryan Lochte, Lebron James, Jared Allen, Jim Thorpe, Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan… all of these Hall of Fame players played multiple sports when growing up, as well as cross train spots while a professional. If it works for them, why wouldn’t it work for your Jonny or Jane?

Stay tuned for Part Two where I break down PLA:YED further, and show how it can be implemented on a family, team, school and community level.

Thanks for reading,

Coach Peck

“Is It Wise to Specialize”

Michael Sagas, “What Does the Science Say About Athletic Development in Children?”  University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative

Tom Farrey, “Early Positive Experiences: What is Age Appropriate?” Roundtable Summary from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society “Project Play” Initiative

Brooke De Lench, “Early Sports Specialization: Does it Lead to Long Term Problems?”


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