"To be a high school recruit in any major sport, you have to play that sport year-round."
This statement has been the dogma for many youthful athletes during the past 10 years. Those of us who treat high schoolers—and counsel their worried parents—talk endlessly about the old days of three-sport athletes. Those were days of building well-rounded attitudes, not just bodies; of decreasing injuries by reducing exposure to repeated impacts and by developing varied athletic skills.
We have mostly failed to bring the three-sport athlete into the modern day. In high school, many serious athletes train year-round in their single sport. An inner-city kid, from a mediocre school, with limited financial or parental support, often believes that their only path to economic and academic freedom is the college sports recruiter. To get his attention, you'd better be big, strong and a starter. Single-focus dedication appears to be the only way forward.
While single-sport athletes appear to be the new norm, CrossFit (and a few of its imitators) may be able to counteract some of the drawbacks inherent in playing one sport year round. While no training program substitutes for the wide-ranging benefits of playing multiple sports, some of the missing attributes can be obtained by these novel, multi-faceted training programs.
CrossFit's virtue is a strength and conditioning program with constantly varied functional movements. It has the stated goal of improving fitness, defined by 10 parameters:
- Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
Perhaps more importantly, it is cheap, widely available, open to everyone, and cool. Intra-gym competition replaces the missing trainer that many high schools can no longer afford. The fitness variation partly substitutes for the cross training and skill development available to a three-sport athlete. Metrics posted on the whiteboard at the CrossFit gym quantify the athlete's progress and compares his or her achievements across the entire CrossFit world. And the daily workouts, posted online, make the fitness program so ubiquitous that the barriers of cost, travel and organizational support have completely disappeared.
Best of all, it works. High school athletes are bringing a soaring level of fitness to the practice field—and the sponsorships are following. Nike, Adidas and other brands are competing to get on the bandwagon. Simply look at any high school or collegiate golfer. In a sport not previously known for fashion, Under Armour's high-tech sportswear has replaced the plaid-clad, baggy-bellied Sears-adorned fairway strollers of our parents' era.
CrossFit's health effects, while mostly positive, do have some downsides. The platform's extreme competitiveness can lead to multiple overuse and even contact injuries. The Box Jump sends more knees into my office than any other training device. Overhead repetitions at high weights have injured many a shoulder.
But a little caution can go a long way. Analyzing the movements in question and assessing the risk inherent, hopefully with the help of a fitness professional, can help you utilize CrossFit in a smart manner. A baseball athlete may need to substitute some of the common overhead moves for more shoulder-safe options, but CrossFit is extremely scalable.
At a good box with qualified, intelligent coaches, athletes will not be allowed to utilize certain movements until they've proven they have the strength, mobility, coordination, etc., to perform it safely.
Despite the conventional wisdom that children should avoid weightlifting, there is little evidence to support that advice—as long as the progression is age and size appropriate, guided and reasonable. So eliminating the competitive edge of CrossFit, at least until the teenage years, probably makes sense.
In the balance, though, the training benefits are huge. So welcome to the new age of super fitness. It is not just for making the team; it's for building well-rounded athletes of all ages.
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