"To be a high school recruit in any major sport, you have to play that sport year round."
This statement has been the dogma (and often the reality) for many youthful athletes during the past 20 years. The level of play has increased so much that single-sport athletes dominate the teams, with summer specialty camps and private coaches thrown in when affordable.
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. In high school and even elementary school, 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. The steroids offered in many gyms, along with single-focus dedication, appear to be the only way forward.
CrossFit (and a few of its imitators) may be changing this. While no training program substitutes for the wide ranging benefits of playing multi-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 ten parameters: 1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance; 2. Stamina; 3. Strength; 4. Flexibility; 5. Power; 6. Speed; 7. Coordination; 8. Agility; 9. Balance; 10. Accuracy.
Most importantly it is cheap, 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 three-sport athlete. Metrics posted on the white board at the CrossFit gym quantify the athlete's progress, and compares his or her achievements across the entire CrossFit world. And the daily work-outs, 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 Armor'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 leads 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, as always, a little caution can go a long way. 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.
1. Hak, Paul Taro, Emil Hodzovic, and Ben Hickey. "The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training." Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association (2013).