Basketball is the most popular youth sport in America. Some reports within the last decade estimate seven million boys and girls hit the hardwood and suit up for an organized basketball team each year. And yet, there is no structure in place that helps educate players, parents, and coaches about health and wellness—until now.
The NBA and USA Basketball announced the first-ever set of youth health and wellness guidelines on Monday morning, addressing the demanding pre-collegiate basketball environment. Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour publicly support the project, while the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) will endorse the guidelines later this week.
“As strong as our game is, we believe there is a real opportunity to improve the youth basketball experience and enhance player health and wellness by establishing standards for how the game should be played and coached at the grassroots level,” said Mark Tatum, NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.
The process began six months ago when doctors, executives, and former NBA players—including Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen—collaborated on recommendations such as:
• Delay single-sport specialization until age 14 or older
• Limit high-density scheduling based on age-appropriate guidelines
• Rest from organized basketball one day per week and for an extended period each year
“These are just guidelines,” said Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball. “No one is saying my way or the highway. It’s a practical approach to the sport from a holistic perspective.”
Tooley considers the new guidelines “long overdue” given the international popularity of the sport. As the father of a former high school basketball player, Tooley is proud to be a part of making the game safer and, he and his colleagues insist, more fun.
In fact, there’s data to prove that the game is less enjoyable when players don’t take care of their bodies. According to Dr. John DiFiori, NBA Director of Sports Medicine and UCLA Team Physician, 70% of young adults disengage from playing sports by age 13. It’s a simple but deadly formula; high intensity combined with little recovery almost always equates to a burnt-out, unenthusiastic athlete. Yet those who continue to play throughout their adolescence, even recreationally, reap the benefits of an active lifestyle.
“We’re trying to reshape the youth basketball culture,” DiFiori said. “We’re trying to get away from this focus on excessive competition and result-oriented outcomes and instead focusing on the overall development of the athlete in the long run.”
And what’s best in the long-run? Under the NBA’s new guidelines, players will have to literally put their legs up to get a leg up competitively.
The association also suggests that young athletes should participate in multiple sports before age 14. According to studies used by the NBA, delaying single-sport specialization in favor of “sports sampling” helps preserve both the physical longevity and mental stamina of young athletes. Physically, DiFiori says playing multiple sports provides a biomechanical change of pace, since muscle loading and mechanics change from sport to sport. Sports sampling also changes many young athletes’ roles and understanding of team dynamics, Tooley says.
“If you’re a top basketball player, you might be a role player on the baseball team,” Tooley said. “You learn how to be a good teammate and have a different perspective.”
Coaches agree. For example, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said he enjoys working with multiple-sport athletes.
“When you find that unique guy who plays two sports, I really like that,” Wright said. “They have a great team mentality.”
Villanova is one of many college basketball programs that emphasize holistic health and wellness. Unfortunately, many of Wright’s incoming freshmen practice unhealthy habits. It’s up to Wright and his coaching staff to educate their players on proper training habits. For example, after game day, the Wildcats have “flush days” where the team practices at about 30% to ensure proper rest and recovery.
It’s the NBA’s hope that pre-collegiate athletes will take similar precautions for their own health and wellness benefits.
Wright’s number one recommendation to young basketball players is simple: enjoy the process. Tooley and the NBA wholeheartedly agree.
“Kids gotta be kids,” Tooley said. “They have to play.”
That is, as long as they play by a new set of rules.