NBA Recommendation: Kids Should Wait Until Age 14 to Focus on Only Basketball

Last week the NBA and USA Basketball announced guidelines for young athletes. The biggest newsworthy points are these:

Young athletes are being urged not to specialize in basketball until they are at least fourteen years old … Players should also take at least one day off from organized basketball each week and extended time off at least once a year for proper physical and mental recovery.

These new recommendations come after a panel of “medical experts, former players, and coaches and administrators throughout basketball” collaborated to help the sport of basketball thrive. As stated on their website:

Basketball is a great game that is played by millions of young people in the United States and around the world. Playing basketball fosters the development of peer relationships, self-esteem, leadership qualities, and physical health… [We] are committed to helping shape a youth basketball culture that prioritizes the health and well-being of young athletes—enhancing their enjoyment, participation, and development in the game.

The panel also notes the dangers experienced by many youth basketball participants. Potential dangers from an overemphasis of basketball at a young age are:

  • Pressure to begin high intensity training at a young age
  • Early single-sport specialization
  • Frequent and multiple competitive event scheduling
  • Increased risk for injury, burnout, and disengagement from sports

These are risks parents do not always consider when they register junior for his first basketball league. However, many parents find the pressure only builds from there for travel teams, weekend tournaments in another town, and even more involvement.

Overcommitment at a young age is why many former NBA stars have called out organizations like Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) for overplaying young athletes and failing to teach their teams real basketball skills. Charles Barkley once called the AAU “the worst thing that ever happened to basketball.”

Former LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant has called the same organization “horrible… terrible… [and] stupid.” Bryant also lamented that “AAU basketball doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all… You wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

Seven-time championship winner Robert Horry, when giving his opinion on the AAU commented, “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.” Horry went so far as to even remove his kids from AAU, stating, “A lot of these AAU coaches are in it for themselves. I think it exploits these kids. That is why you see some of these kids get hurt so easily now, because they are overworked.”

Much like this scene from the Gene Hackman’s classic Hoosiers, “there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense.”

Instead of playing basketball all the time, the committee recommends what they call “sports sampling,” which is “characterized by participation in multiple sports during childhood, provides a young athlete the chance to find a sport that may ultimately fit him or her best.” The benefits of trying multiple sports at a young age are also listed:

  • Prolonged engagement in sports
  • More enjoyable and positive early sports experiences
  • Healthy physical, psychological, and social development
  • Transfer of skills acquired from multiple sports to primary sport if specialization occurs

Physician John DiFiori, NBA Director of sports medicine and UCLA team doctor added that “playing multiple sports doesn’t mean falling behind. Rather, they actually provide a strong foundation for success in your sport.”

Furthermore, “current research does not support the view that early single-sport specialization is either necessary or sufficient to produce elite performance at advanced levels of competition… world class athletes often delayed single-sport specialization until age 16 or later.” That is why you hear of professional athletes who played multiple sports, even at the high school level. Tim Tebow’s return to baseball, and Michael Jordan’s attempt at the same sport are but a couple of examples and even more are listed here. A well-rounded approach to sports helps kids experience different things and then decide what to pursue later in life.

Visit the NBA’s website for youth guidelines for healthy participation levels (how many games per week, how long practices should last, and how frequent practices should be, etc.) for each age group. They also have a chart with maximum participation guidelines to help keep kids who love the game from overextending their bodies. Also important for parents to note are the rest guidelines. It is important to keep children in good condition and well-rested for success in basketball and the rest of life.

Well-rounded adults are not born from kids who experienced burnout in fifth grade, so it’s up to moms and dads to protect them. Help your kids set these healthy limits and learn to pace themselves so they will still enjoy basketball years from now.