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Diversity Over Specialization: CrossFit Creates Exceptional Youth Athletes

I talk to a lot of sports-specific coaches about coaching amazing student athletes, and they all say the same thing- early specialization is detrimental to creating great athletes.

Early specialization in sports means exclusive training only in one sport. Early specialization has become more prominent with the creation of year-round sports teams, such as baseball, basketball, and soccer and due to Malcom Gladwell’s questionable “10,000 hour rule” from his book, “Outliers.”

However, training 10,000 hours or all of your time in one sport does not make children great athletes. In fact, studies have found that early specialization greatly increases injury. One study found that “Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.” Additionally, the best elite athletes started specializing in a sport in later adolescence (high school and older.)

If children train in only one sport, their body and brain function best in only very specific movements. Should something happen on the court or on the field that is not within those movements, they get injured. Training the same way every day also contributes to injury because if kids do not know foundational movements, such as how to squat and jump without their knees caving in or ankles collapsing, they get repetitive use injuries. (Most of my teen athletes who have been in sports since the age of 5 come into my CrossFit program not actually knowing how to squat or do a proper pushup.) I have spoken to Dr. Kelly Starrett from Mobility WOD about training kids and how specialization is creating too many injuries and taking elite student athletes out of their sports career too early.

When kids learn great form in basic foundational movements and are diversified in their training, their body is safer and their brain is more athletic. They have increased agility and coordination, better school performance, amazing sports performance, and a decrease in injury.

My son, Jeffrey, has been doing CrossFit since he was 8 years old. CrossFit athletes specialize in not being specialists. Through constantly varied workouts at high intensities, youth learn perfect form in functional movements needed in all sports and daily living such as the squat, pushups, pullups, and running. They are strong in defensive and ready positions and are rarely thrown off balance by a defender. CrossFit also trains all three metabolic systems so a child has the endurance for hour-long games, and speed and power for sprints on the track. Coaches will notice that these kids have great form, great agility, quick thinking and decision making in a game, and can outwork almost any other kid on the team.

When Jeffrey was about ten years old, he joined a competitive rock climbing team and had an easy transition into climbing. Then at twelve years old, he decided that basketball, which he had never played before, might be his main sport. He started playing at school with his friends and loved it, so we found a basketball skills and conditioning program for him. Because of Jeffrey’s CrossFit he was able to jump into this program and translate his knowledge of the squat to his defensive stance, and his kettlebell swing into how to have a perfect shot. He could run miles on the track and train for hours without getting fatigued or vomiting (common when starting up a training program.) In just a few years, he has been able to catch up to many of his peers in basketball due to his diversity of training from CrossFit. He came into a new sport with all the diversity and foundational skills he needed to quickly learn the sports-specific skills of basketball.

Jeffrey is 14 years old now and just started high school. He decided to join the Cross Country team and he jumped into training runs easily. Jeffrey has never raced before and had his first Cross Country race this past weekend at the Ed Sias Invitational in California. Out of 200 Freshman boys, he placed 6th. According to his coach, Jeff Rogers, Jeffrey had “one of the four or five fastest times ever by a Saint Mary’s freshman on the Ed Sias course.”* Between all of his sports, Jeffrey trains between two to six hours a day, has few injuries and recovers quickly.

The teens I coach in CrossFit are often the best players on their middle school or high school teams. They never come into the “on season” for their sport needing to ramp up their training because CrossFit keeps them conditioned and strong all year round. The diversity of their CrossFit training means they are better athletes at their main sport.

Diversify your child’s training, and I suggest doing that by getting them into CrossFit. If you are in the California Bay Area, come see me at CrossFit Hale in Richmond, CA.


Rev. Katie

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