Spoiler Alert: the answer is . . . Resiliency
Not lack of coaching, availability of fitness equipment, or the support of overzealous parents who feel their little Jimmy or Tiffany could be the next Mike Trout or Heather O'Reilly.
Although exceptions do exist, most young athletes have access to pretty much anything and everything they want or need, from a wide array of "specialty" coaches—I know of 13-year-olds who have a hitting coach, pitching coach and a strength coach; I wouldn't be surprised if some have coaches to show them how to floss their teeth and tie their shoelaces—to any number of speed camps, travel teams and weekend showcases designed to 1) increase their exposure and 2) give the parents who are paying for everything the illusion that their money is being well spent.
It's usually not.
In fact, I'd argue that the overexposure of young, impressionable athletes to any of the above—which typically morphs into early sport specialization—does more harm than good in terms of improved athletic performance.
Resiliency and Why It Matters
Resiliency refers to how people adapt to adversity—the ability to roll with the punches when things don't go their way or when stress, trauma or zombies strike. And they will strike. In short: people who are resilient are able to function—and persevere—in the presence of anger, grief, failure and/or pain.
Don't get me wrong: I've worked with a plethora of young athletes who do very well when faced with adversity. But I have also witnessed my fair share of tantrums and breakdowns. Sadly, in event years, I've observed the latter trumping the former.
As a co-founder of one of the best strength and conditioning facilities in the country catering to baseball players—Cressey Sports Performance (located in Hudson, Massachusetts and Jupiter, Florida), I cannot identify one main culprit to blame for the lack of resiliency of today's young athletes, but here are a few nominees:
1. Early Sport Specialization
When I was kid growing up—especially between the ages of 8 and 16, when I began to participate in organized sports—I played a sport for every season. I one hundred percent believe that playing a variety of sports throughout the year allowed me to excel in baseball, which is what I ended up playing in college. Playing several sports helped me to develop a multitude of athletic abilities and made not just a better baseball player but a better athlete. Moreover, it kept me healthy and prevented me from developing pattern overload injuries that are quite common in sports like baseball, gymnastics and hockey, to name a few.
I stress these points with every young athlete I work with.
It saddens me when I start working with an athlete and I ask him or her which sports he or she plays, and they respond with one sport.
2. Lack of Recovery
Early sport specialization doesn't allow young athletes to recover. There's a reason why every sport has an off-season—it's to allow its athletes to recover after a long, grueling period of hard work.
Grown, mature athletes take time off. Why this message has been muted among young, underdeveloped athletes is beyond my comprehension.
It sounds counterintuitive, but playing multiple sports helps with recovery. An athlete who plays soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball or track in the spring prevents pattern overload and stays fresh. That athlete is less likely to burn out.
Weekend showcases, in my opinion, make things worse—especially for baseball players (for whom they're most prevalent).
The biggest issue is timing. Most showcases are done in the fall—or in warmer states in the winter—weeks if not months after an athlete has shut things down.
The athlete is tossed into a "game intensity" scenario at a time when he is least prepared for it. And this may happen several times throughout the year. Is it any surprise that we've seen an increase in Tommy John surgeries within this demographic?
3. Obsession With Division I Athletics
For many high school athletes, the opportunity to play at the Division I level is the Holy Grail. I get it. That's a big deal (and an honor).
However, I've seen some athletes become so obsessed and indoctrinated into believing that playing Division I is the only way to succeed, they're demoralized and "broken" if it doesn't happen.
I understand that at the Division I level, athletes expect the the coaching and facilities to be better (sometimes true, but not always) and that getting exposure is easier.
I've coached enough athletes from all levels to tell you that if you're good enough, pro scouts will find you regardless of what level you play.
More importantly, your chances of getting exposure increases exponentially at an institution where you'll actually play (and hence get better).
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock