A Plea for Cross Training
By Lila Dubois
A plea for cross-training. It’s a pretty easy concept in theory. Cross training: do something different than your sport.
Its benefits have been touted by athletes of the highest caliber, from soccer legend Mia Hamm, who played seven sports before reaching college, to basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal, with his religious set of training regiments across various disciplines of mixed martial arts, to professional surfer Alana Blanchard, who also teaches yoga and does Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
You’ve heard it before – NFL teams in the dance studio, hulking linebackers belly up to the ballet barre, and NBA players spotted at their local yoga studios. But it’s no coincidence. Rather, it’s a guarantee: if an athlete is good, it probably means they’re cross-training.
Better than anyone, these professional athletes know the benefits of letting their muscles and joints flex and stretch in a new, refreshing way. Such benefits include but are not limited to reduced risk of injury, reduction in rates of burn-out, quicker muscle recovery, faster metabolism, development of a more well-rounded muscle base, lowered levels of stress, and increased brain function. Participating in a variety of movement types has even been linked to staving off diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.
Despite this, there is a glaring lack of crossing training in the world of competitive youth sports. Clubs and academies discourage athletes from participating in other sports; with practice and games schedules so rigorous, participating in another activity is rendered a near-impossible feat.
More often than not, these coaches and leaders of our youth sports sphere subscribe to the culture of working hard, working through pain, sacrifice, and physical toughness. The kids who go to the most practices are hallowed as the best. Those who come off the field crying after pushing through an injury are revered for their devotion to the win.
I don’t want to take anything away from these largely admirable qualities. Practicing does make you better; we should give our all to the team. But again, for the health and longevity of our athletes, and even the long-term health of our teams, there has to be a line.
While repetition, practicing something over and over, is a key ingredient to mastery, there comes a point where this rote practice becomes erosion of the limited muscle group in play, and the grind begets burnout more than passion. In these cases, over-done commitment to specification is actually detrimental to the health and skill of the individual athlete. This is especially important to remember for young athletes, whose bodies and athletic potential have the most to gain from a diverse range of movement and thought during developmental years.
So, what now? You want to cross-train; your body and mind need you to cross-train, but where do you find the time?
The unfortunate truth is that you have to make it. You have to say no. Get comfortable with telling your coach, or your child’s coach, that you may miss a practice or two for a track meet or a dance class. You’ll have to be okay, too, with the consequences that may bring. Maybe you don’t start, or maybe you get a little less playing time in the short term. But eventually, there comes a point where no matter what, the best player will be on the field, and, more often than not, the best players end up being those who spent a good deal of time exploring and expanding their athletic scope across a range of areas (and I’ll bet they had fun doing it too!).
There is also a path of less resistance if this seems more realistic (trust me, I know, coaches can be scary). So maybe cross-training for you just means switching out a private lesson in your main sports area for a yoga class. Or substituting your typical track run for a hike or a swim.
But I promise – and the data promises – that you will be a stronger, quicker, smarter, and more skilled and lasting athlete in whatever endeavor you ultimately choose if you’ve been doing different activities along the way. So maybe you didn’t go to as many soccer practices – or swim or baseball or whatever your area may be – but in the long run, you might just turn out to be the best player on the team. While your teammates drop off from injuries and over-use, you’ll have a healthy, agile body that is ready to play. And when the inevitable bout of high school burn-out sets in, you’ll still have the fresh excitement of someone who hasn’t turned the sport into a full-time job.
And at the end of the day, being active should center around just that – being active. Trophies and D1 rosters fade, but a love of movement can far outlive the confines of youth sports. If set up right from the outset, being an athlete can be a lifelong passion.
Lila played ECNL, Development Academy, and high school soccer. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Pennsylvania.
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