Year-round sports model: top athletes, coaches share their thoughts

Once upon a time there were seasons, and kids played multiple sports. But, for better or for worse, the year-round sports model has swept in like a hurricane.

Whether the prevailing force is parents, coaches or the athletes themselves, there is a growing belief that specializing in a single sport improves the chances of landing a college scholarship and further—despite significant odds—the chance to cash in at the professional level.

Renowned retired sports physician Dr. Doug Clement calls specializing in a sport year-round “the classic dilemma.”

Co-founder, along with his wife Diane, of the Richmond Kajaks Track and Field Club in 1961, Clement says some of the more technical sports like figure skating, gymnastics and swimming often demand that very young children are exposed to adult-like training regimes. But as these children mature and reach puberty their bodies change.

“In many cases they reveal a young adult not suited by body type to the sport they have invested many years and sometimes a lot of money,” he says. “Puberty is the deciding point and one cannot really tell what the young person will be until then. And the drop-out rate with pubertal change is dramatic.”

Internationally recognized as one of the pioneers in the field of sports medicine,  Clement is a former Olympic and Commonwealth athlete who has worked with thousands of elite athletes including former Vancouver Canucks and Canadian Olympians. He believes that in an ideal world, the final sport selection is best delayed until maturity is complete. He says early intensity can be dangerous in the developing body.

“Irritation of the bone growth centres is common and can remove the individual from the sport,” he explains.

Clement also believes allowing the child to choose the sport they most enjoy is the best practice.

“Most people including young athletes look to success in an activity which they suit physically and develop a passion for,” he says.

But he says there are a lot of examples of athletes changing direction in their early 20s. Cheryl Spowage-Howard was a promising middle distance runner with the Kajaks in the early 1970s who switched to rowing and made the Canadian team for the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Her husband and fellow Kajak Tom Howard made the same 1976 Olympic team in the marathon.

Maximizing potential

A longtime Richmond ice hockey coach, Tony Lindsay has coached both boys and girls and says the landscape is “significantly different” even from a decade ago.

“Today there is a proliferation of full-time, professional skills instructors focusing on providing their services to young athletes,” he says. There is an increased sophistication and expectation from parents as to the quality of coaching and instruction their children are receiving, and many are willing to pay  for it. A proliferation of teams are also being set up to operate outside of a traditional sports season.”

Combined with dynamics such as improved instruction and not wanting to see their child left behind, and the popularity of views like those by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers: The Story of Success which, in discussing the 10,000-hour rule to excellence suggests “you need to put in the time to become the best you can become,” Lindsay says it’s not surprising that players are specializing in sports earlier and earlier.

So is this good or bad? Lindsay wouldn’t describe it in those terms, but says there are certain consequences to the decisions.

“Recent studies seem to indicate a certain amount of skill development time is required to fully develop one’s abilities,” he says. “But whether it is important to fully develop their ability is a very individual decision and the answer is not the same for everyone. For those who play sports for more social reasons, maximizing their potential may not be a priority, yet those who have a goal of playing at the highest competitive level possible have more opportunity today to be able to do that.”

The question then becomes how much time should be spent on skill development, says Lindsay. Take swimming for example. Clearly, he says, someone who swims 10 hours per day for nine months of the year will develop more than someone who swims two hours per week three months of the year. But is 10 hours enough to fully develop one’s skills. Should it be 15 hours a week. Or 20? And when should specialization start? At age five? At 10? Or at 15?

Lindsay believes athletes today generally have a skill level that far exceeds those of a generation ago. But because many specialize it can be difficult to keep up at the highest competitive levels. He says specializing at an earlier age can create added pressures on both the child and on the coaches or instructors to get “good results” simply to justify the time and money being invested.

Specializing also means lost opportunities to experience multiple activities, he says.

“Children should be able to experience many different sports and the opportunity to play with different kids and establish different friendships,” he says, adding the move toward year-round sports may be eliminating the late bloomer.

“If kids are discouraged to continue playing sports in their teens because they believe they are too far behind at 12, we lose them,” he says. “And we need to ensure we do not lose sight that sports must be fun for the participants. It is OK to be competitive, but the kids have to enjoy it while learning life skills like discipline, accountability, responsibility, teamwork, sacrifice, organizing skills and leadership.”

Kids need final say

Seafair Minor Hockey president Nigel Shackles says many times it’s not about the kids’ energy being focused into one sport, but rather the parents’ energy.

“I’ve always advised parents to allow their kids to play the sports they desire,” he says. “For some that means one sport and for others a variety. I personally believe it’s important to allow them the opportunity to sample a variety of sports at a young age, so parents need to listen to what their kids are saying they enjoy. There is no one answer that is correct for every child.”

Shackles says many kids today don’t “play” sports, but rather “train.”

“At a certain age there is a need to train, particularly when there are opportunities available either through scholarships or advancement through competitive pro ranks,” he says. “Sadly, the training regimens are too often aimed at kids who are still in elementary school. If a child in, say, Grade 4 just wants to play hockey and no other sport then that’s great. The child has discovered something they love to do and hopefully will play for life. However, all too often parents take that desire to play and have it channeled through enhanced training to the point the young boy or girl is no longer just playing the sport, they are working at it. For some parents it’s not good enough to just play and the simple value of play is frowned upon.”

Shackles says he gets asked all the time by parents what they can do to improve their child’s on-ice abilities. He tells them to go shoot hoops in the driveway, kick a soccer ball or just let them hang upside down at their school’s adventure playground.

“There is a growing desire amongst parents to not only nurture their children, but also to clear every path and hurdle that they could possibly encounter in their young lives—especially with a sport in the public spotlight such as hockey,” he says.

“Every parent wants their child to do well, that’s a given, but in hockey the added bonus is that you are seen doing well by others and parents receive the reflected glory from that. Massive media coverage from 24-hour sports TV and radio contributes mightily to this trend. Everything in sports now is bigger, from the pros to the kids. And the pressure at the pro level to maintain jobs filters all the way down to the minor sport level, where kids have to make a certain team or be deemed a failure and the dream dies.”

Shackles fears a longterm effect of the emergence of year-round sports, and the expectations that come with it, may result in a growing disconnect between parents and their kids.

“If parents continue to see their kids as pawns in their own fantasy hockey world then the relationship will eventually suffer. At Seafair, I write a lot about the importance of building a strong relationship parents should have with their kids so that when they become young adults, and the minor hockey gear is rusting in the attic, you will have come through everything and seen what involvement in minor sports is really about—the opportunity to build a healthy relationship with your own kids for life.”

Richmond Minor Hockey grad Ray Sawada, who went on to play in the NHL for Dallas Stars, says year-round sports isn’t all bad. But it requires some discernment.

“It’s hard to say which one is best because I have seen people succeed following both practices,” says Sawada.  “Ultimately you want the decision to be the kid’s decision. Sometimes, I feel parents are pushing their kids in the direction the parents wants them to go. I’m playing both sides now, but a balanced life of sports I believe can only be beneficial.  If you love one sport in particular, absolutely put in the extra time and effort to become the best athlete in that sport. Just don’t sacrifice or give up the other sports too early in life.  In the end, if the kid is happy and loving what he or she is doing, then that’s all that matters.  Whatever route a person takes if they have the drive, work ethic, and skill to make it, they will make it.”

Sawada, who recently became a first-time parent, says playing multiple sports exposes you to many different types of skills, both mental and physical, which can help you later on when you eventually decide on one specific sport.

“When I was young I knew I loved hockey, but I also loved other sports like soccer, basketball, and fastball. Not only did I like playing those sports, but I liked being around different teammates and having different experiences. Eventually I knew that hockey was the sport I wanted to pursue but that was while I was in grade 12 and I guess you could say older. “

Richmond Youth Basketball League co-ordinator Matt Winograd strongly believe that not only should children play more than one sport growing up, sport organizations and coaches should encourage it. He says early sport specialization leads to many issues in the development of a child.

“To be able to look at the benefits of multi-sport participation, one needs to have the ultimate goal in mind: playing amateur or professional sports as an adult or simply enjoying physical activity for life,” says Winograd. “For both goals, participation in multiple sports increases the opportunities to develop skills, understanding of concepts, and an overall appreciation for physical activity. When kids only focus on one sport, they do not get to experience the development of physical and cognitive developments of the game. The gross and fine muscle areas that are developed in each of these, transfer and benefit skill development in many other sports and activities. The training of one specific functional movement over and over again will not develop anything more than that one movement. Cognitively, the ability to understand concepts and strategies increases  with every game a child plays.“

Winograd believes the focus of all youth sports organizations, and coaches, should be to create and encourage positive opportunities for children to experience all of the different components of a physical activity. And positive experiences lead to positive futures, he says, serving up a list of pro athletes who excelled at other sports that support his position. This includes Tom Brady who was drafted by the Montreal Expos; John Elway, who played minor league baseball for the New York Yankees’ Tom Glavine, drafted by the Los Angeles Kings; Jay Triano, drafted by both the Los Angeles Lakers and Calgary Stampeders; Jarome Iginla, who played baseball for the Canadian national junior team; Tim Duncan, who was a competitive swimmer in the U.S. Virgin Islands; and Hayley Wickenheiser, who played softball for Team Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Steve Nash, twice the NBA’s most valuable player, didn’t even start playing basketball until the age of 12 and played soccer and ice hockey as a kid.

Most of these athletes specialized in their mid-teen to young adult years, says Winograd.

“I am not saying specialization is bad. However, I am saying that early specialization does not provide children with the best opportunities,” he says. “The diversification of sport and physical activities in the early years leads to a more well-rounded individual as the number of opportunities available is greater.”

Three-time Canadian Olympic rower Darcy Marquardt, who won silver as a member of Canada’s women’s eight team at the 2012 Summer Games in London, says people are often surprised to learn she didn’t start training as rower until the age of 19. But she did grow up playing multiple sports.

“I enjoyed them and wanted to have fun with my new friends,” she says. “This is my core belief to the purpose of participation in sports: that first it must be fun. Then it becomes fun to be competitive. However, I personally would not have been ready as a kid for the commitment and tough choices you make when you’re focused on a single sport.”

That’s certainly not to say she is opposed to focusing on a single sport, though she has mixed feelings about it.

“In sports (figure skating, gymnastics, swimming and diving) that require that early development to get to an elite level, year-round sport will deepen the pool of athletes that will ultimately push each other to a higher standard,” she says. “Though not everyone will make it to that elite level, you need a certain depth of talent to have anyone make it all and be competitive internationally. On the other hand, that kind of commitment is not for every kid. But if the kids who are in programs are enjoying the sport at whatever level they are participating, including year-round, then they are not missing out on anything because they are developing lifelong skills that will make them successful in the future—after sport. Traits like hard work, perseverance, failing successfully—as in get back up and try again, healthy habits, teamwork and leadership. Those skills will make them want to be positive contributing members of society.”

Marquardt’s husband, former Olympic swimmer Richard Hortness, says there are always pros and cons to an issue such as year-round sport. He says if you look at swimming, most start as early as age six and developmental swimming as young as four. But balance at a young age is also needed.

“Being able to use your whole body and move in space is one of the most important skills that sports can give our youth,” he says. “Restricting them could have dire consequences in the future when that swimmer, for example, turns out to be the fastest kid on the ball field but can’t catch.”

Retired snowboarder Alexa Loo, Richmond’s lone athlete in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, says the best part of growing in a community like Richmond is having the opportunity to try lots of different sports.

“The more sports you try and the more different skills that you develop, the more your brain will be able to learn more diverse things and the more well rounded you will become,” says Loo. “By specializing early, you may become great at one sport, but you may also limit yourself—in that sport and in other sports. I swam competitively for many years with the Richmond Kigoos and later with the UBC Thunderbirds. It gave me strong shoulders which helped to protect my shoulders from injury.”

Loo says when it comes to life after sport, it is nice to have other sports to do. She was talking with Vancouver Canucks’ president of hockey operations Trevor Linden recently and he said that he never plays hockey any more.  He is glad that he knows how to ski and do some other sports with his wife and friends outside of the hockey rink.

“The risk of only doing one sport, besides the risk of injury, is the risk of defeat,” says Loo. “If you keep advancing in your sport and then one day get cut from the team because you get injured or are no longer improving as quickly as the others, you have nothing.”

Canada might never be the best in the world at some sports because much of the top talent is devoted elsewhere, says Loo. But on the other hand, kids who might have otherwise been overlooked in sport have a chance in the less popular sports to get great coaching and excel. Loo was never identified as top athlete by coaches or gym teachers, but once she brought her great work ethic—developed through swimming—to snowboarding, she worked with some coaches that wanted to help her excel and she made it to a pair of Olympic Games.

“It seems a lot of parents think their kids will make the NHL or something,” she says. “They may and they may not. That is a lot of pressure to put on a kid and it is also a lot of pressure to put on yourself as a parent—thinking that your success as a parent lies in whether or not your child makes it to the NHL. There seems to be so much pressure to make the right decisions rather than to teach your kids to make good decisions and live right. The better a person and the better the athlete your child is—which is achieved by developing a strong work ethic and learning lots of different physical and mental skills—the more successful your child will be in any endeavour.”

Bye-bye traditional season

The shifts happening in youth sports are far more complex than just being good or bad, says educator Chris Kennedy, who is also a former president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association.

“With the opportunity to go year-round, we have seen the traditional season disappear for almost all sports,” he says. “And there are some real concerns. There is a lot of research that early specialization leads to fatigue and burnout and overuse injuries. It also seems to serve the adults more than the kids. Kids are looking to have fun and often it is the adults’ competitiveness that is driving the decisions their kids make. There is also research that suggests adults who specialized in one sport growing up have higher rate of adult physical inactivity.”

Kennedy says the related debate with increased early specialization is whether sports should be more or less “score-focused” at younger ages. He thinks youth soccer and basketball have it right: de-emphasize scoring at younger ages and focus on development.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t want kids to be competitive, but do we need to keep score and have a focus on winning and losing all the time?,” he asks. “I like the race to nowhere metaphor and how it applies to youth sports. Parents are killing themselves to get their kids to so-called elite training that is getting in the way of being a kid and what is really the goal.”

Kennedy’s wife, Stephanie, is equally passionate about the topic. She has always believed that kids should be exposed to and participate in as many different sports as possible while they are young. And for a variety of reasons.

“I know through my own four children that all kids have their own structural make-up, both physically and mentally, and that different sports may cater to these differences,” she says. “I truly believe there is a sport for all kids, but it may take some effort and time to find out what that is. And in today’s age of childhood obesity, low activity levels, access to electronics and the resulting de-socialization of youth, sport can play a key role in reversing these trends.”

Stephanie, who runs Panther Cheer Athletics, is also adamant that kids participating in as many sports as possible when they’re young aids their physical development. This doesn’t mean, she says, they must do multiple sports at the same time, but within a calendar year should shift from one activity to another.

“This allows children’s young bodies, which are often growing and changing so rapidly, to adapt and hopefully grow stronger with minimal injuries,” she says. “I know from personal experience as a provincial level gymnast that I enjoyed the opportunity to play intramural sports (such as volleyball, basketball and soccer) in high school but began to resent the fact I wasn’t able to participate in these in any large way as gymnastics took most of my time. It also alienated me from my peers who played more conventional team sports and were members of high school teams. “

The eldest of the couple’s four children, Elizabeth, 12, thinks those who focus on one sport may quickly tire of it, burn out and then have no other alternatives.

“It is also more likely you will be injured because you are using the same body parts over and over,” she says. “(Alternately), if you play a lot of sports you have the chance to meet a far more diverse group of people and learn a diverse group of skills.”

Elizabeth says unfortunately sports out of the mainstream don’t get enough exposure and because kids don’t know about them “they may never try a sport they could be really good at or have a passion for.”

“Coaches in some sports are also organizing so many practices (young athletes) don’t have time to try other sports,” she adds. “I think there will be many more overuse injuries and once their career in that sport is over they won’t know what to do because they will feel it is too late to try a new sport.”

Healthy experimentation

A tireless volunteer at all levels of amateur sport in Richmond for decades, Al Groff continues to coach women’s softball and soccer. He suggests some kids are missing out on the “healthy experimentation” that comes with trying many sports when they are young.

“The issue of year-round sport also gets to the purpose of sport, which is hopefully building some lifelong skills and habits around health, making friends, and being a better person and not simply a better athlete,” he says. “If one of our goals is to produce more high quality athletes as a community, early specialization doesn’t do it. Most college athletes come from a multi-sport background.”

Groff finds it concerning to see that while some athletes getting specialized training are playing more, overall the number of participants in most sports is declining. There are actually fewer young people playing, he says.

“There seem to be fewer entry points for kids at different levels,” he says. “However, there are lots of opportunities for those interested in intense, high-performance programs. There is a sense that if kids haven’t started playing a sport by the age of eight or nine it is too late. This is terribly sad and misses the point of sport.”

Groff says the growth of private enterprise in traditional school and community sports has served up a best- and worst-care scenario. As coaching is being “professionalized” in sports like soccer, hockey and basketball, more coaches are being paid. This, he says, has increased the level of coaches at the top and in private programs and created new opportunities and new models for sport. But private enterprise has also turned youth sports into a business.

“If a coach is being paid based on how many athletes they have or how much they play, it is not in their financial interest to encourage athletes they work with to play multiple sports or to take time off their sport,” he says.

Ironically, Groff believes there are still a lot of people “that get it” and the  quality of programs for kids at younger ages is better than ever. He says Richmond youth soccer, for example, promotes the principles of long-term athlete development. He’s also listened to highly-respected basketball coaches like former women’s national team mentor Alison McNeil, who encourages kids to have more fun and try more sports.

“These are really interesting times in sports. Many parents feel the need to keep up with the Jones. And I worry the increasing costs of some sports will price families out of the market. There need to be more or options in sports like soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball that are inclusive.”

As a parent, Shari Rogers is a strong believer in year-round sport, but not necessarily specialization. Rogers, whose daughter Camryn is a burgeoning track and field star with the Kajaks, says any activity including dance and theatre that interests a child should be encouraged and supported.

“It doesn’t have to be hard core all the time, but to be involved in something other than school and daily (routines) is important,” she says. “How does one know where their talents may be if they aren’t exposed  to different activities and situations.”

Though Camryn’s “off-season” from the Kajaks is only about six weeks, the time and activities within the club vary greatly. For example, the focus might be circuit training and weightlifting for a couple of months and then more technical work. Rogers says it keeps her focused on her goals while maintaining her health and fitness.

“She is also developing strong organizational skills that will follow her long term, as well as learning to be self motivated,” says Rogers, who also believes it is important to be able to set aside time for friends and to simply have fun.

Camryn says putting all your energy into one sport has its pros and cons—pro in that you can become stronger in that activity “which is great if you wish to stay with it,” but con in that it limits other opportunities.

“I train six days a week which can be a lot, but I enjoy what I do and always want to be better,’ she says. “The challenge is you’re forced to organize your time. Even though I love (track and field) I also enjoy being social and just spending time with my friends.”

Recently retired as an educator but still an active athlete, Don Taylor grew up in Richmond during the 1960s when there was no such thing as year-round sport. Not even the idea had been born.

“Soccer was September to March and baseball April to June,”” he says. “With Richmond Arena being built in 1965 hockey made it the big three alongside soccer.”

In 1970, Taylor joined his first hockey school—for two weeks in August. It was just the beginning of a trend, which continued to grow throughout the decade. By the time his sons began playing sports in the late 1980s and 1990s, both the hockey and soccer seasons were expanding with tryout camps.

“Spring hockey began to flourish,” he says. “Parents were encouraged to get their kids in to keep up in the rep system. The thinking was more is better and you’d better keep up or your kids won’t make it. Now, certainly year-round sports has become the norm.”

Taylor believes while year-round play is producing better individual skills, the percentage of players who quit from burnout is skyrocketing. And no matter how much one loves a game, you need a break from it.

“It simply gets tiresome,” he says. “I still play over-50s hockey and soccer and I love coming back to them after a three- or four-month break. Many of today’s youth, when they’re over 50, will probably still be one-sport athletes and that’s a shame.”

Taylor says there is no question playing multiple sports gives any athlete a distinct advantage when it comes to things like agility and the ability to read the play. And speaking as a former educator, Taylor says there is little doubt a child who plays a variety of sports will be better academically at school and be a success in their career as well.”

Too much, too soon

Specialization too early can ruin kids in any number of ways including overuse, boredom, pressure to win, drop out and burn out, says Basketball BC executive director Lawrie Johns.

In fact Johns, whose son Brian was a three-time Olympic swimmer, says there isn’t much to like about year-round sport though “we must understand this practice is different for different sports or activities.”

“Individual sports can (introduce) specialization (a little earlier) without major problems if the coach is educated in terms of overuse and rest periods,” he says. “But in team sports early specialization has no rewards. The Gretzkys, Crosbys and Sinclairs of this world will rise to the top without specializing in their sport at under-10.”

Johns says when it comes to youth sports there should be a buffet of choices not a single serving. The shift toward year-round sport impacts all sports as unregulated teams and programs grab kids earlier and earlier and play to the parents’ hopes of a scholarship, an Olympic berth or the like.

“Some parents will pay exorbitant amounts for training by non-professional coaches, trainers and entrepreneurs and of course they will take the money,” he says.

Johns notes there are more than 200,000 kids playing hockey in Canada and only 750 NHL players. He adds that during the 2008 Olympics In Beijing there were 31 swimmers on the Canadian team, but more than 100,000 swimmers registered in Canada. And of the 150,000 female basketball players in Canada at the same time, only 12 were selected for the Olympic team. The point, he stresses, is keep the dream alive but keep it realistic.

Johns fears the long term affects of this change will be more kids dropping out.

“Canada just got a mark of “D” for kids being active in their elementary school years. They get into pressure, win-at-all-costs situations and drop out,” he explains. “We have to allow kids to be kids. We must encourage multi-sports at least to the age of 11 or 12, and we must find coaches who are knowledgeable about the Long Term Athlete Development and Canadian Sport for Life models.”

The models strive to improve the quality of sport and physical activity in Canada through a seven-stage training, competition and recovery pathway guiding an individual’s experience in sport and physical activity from infancy through all phases of adulthood.

“We have the risk of taking fun out of sport, but for what reason?,” says Johns. “The No. 1 question parents should ask their child when he/she finishes a game, a tournament or a practice is: Did you have fun? If the answer is no the warning lights should come on.”

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