If you are a parent, whether your child is involved in sports or not, you have undoubtedly noticed the increase in activity associated with organized youth sports.
It seems that there are leagues, many competitive, happening year-round in most sports, today. Sometimes listening to other sport-parents talk about their schedules on the sidelines during practices makes my head hurt.
There are many factors that have been attributed to the increase in organized sports involvement; some being the glamorization of professional sports/athletes, the pursuit of college scholarships/professional contracts, recognition from parents/coaches to name a few. (9)
Athletics can be great. The benefits are numerous and sports can bring out the best in us. For example:
But, on the flipside of that, it can bring out the worst in people as well. This is compounded when these behaviors are in front of impressionable youth.
These negative consequences can range from the regular verbal abuse lobbed at the refs at just about any sporting event to the practice of “redshirting” which is intentionally holding a child back in a grade, usually between 6th-8th grade, for the purpose of having a size advantage over their peers. (4)
We are seeing a decrease in the average age for Tommy John surgery (surgery to repair damage to the elbow of a baseball pitcher). One study showed that about a third of baseball coaches/parents think the surgery should be performed just for the sake of improved performance regardless if the pitcher has an injury or not. (5)
The above examples are not as common, but what is becoming much more common is the number of parents/coaches pressuring children to specialize in a single sport from an earlier age.
While not as drastic and obviously wrong as “redshirting”, this practice can be harmful to our children.
Sometimes parents do this because they think they are doing what is best for their child, and some do it because they want to relive their “glory days” through their children.
Either way, I’m going to spend the rest of this post explaining why it can be harmful to our kids and then give some suggestions on how best to enjoy and get the most out of their athletic development.
What Is Specialization?
Specialization is not necessarily a new phenomenon but it has become a lot more common. First, let’s define what it is.
The generally accepted definition of specialization is “intensive year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports.” (1,2,3,8,10)
Some of the move to have children specialize has been influenced by the “10,000 rule” which was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers.
In the book, Gladwell points out a study that showed elite violinists, on average, practiced at least 10,000 hours to master their instrument. Once the “10,000 Hour Rule” gained popularity it was applied to other areas of life, including sports.
Parents and coaches have latched onto this idea and pushed young athletes to practice year round believing that the more hours of practice will return ever-increasing abilities in their sport.
Since then, other researchers studying the effects of “deliberate practice” showed that becoming an elite-level performer, whether in music or sports, may not be as simple as putting in a certain number of hours. (11)
Another driving force behind specialization is coaches and parents that put winning games ahead of physical development for their younger children.
They push their kids to practice more often because they see the immediate improvements, which are short-lived, in sport-specific skills which obviously improves their ability to win more often.
Trying to win and learning competitiveness are both valuable lessons learned through sports, but not at the expense of proper physical and mental development of the child (more on this later).
Benefits of Specialization?
Since the trend to specialize has been growing for over the past ten years, it would be expected that we would have started to see some of the benefits. Well, they’re just not there.
There is absolutely no evidence that having a child spend more time practicing a single sport improves their chances of playing at the collegiate or professional level. Actually, the research shows the opposite. (5,6)
Various studies that looked at athletes in Eastern European countries that have a longer history of sports specialization than here in the US, found that athletes that were selected at a young age to train in a specific sport were less likely to make it to an “elite” level. They were also more likely to drop-out or retire from their sport earlier. The athletes that played various sports and specialized later were much more likely to succeed at their chosen sport. (3,5,9)
To revisit the point I made earlier about children that specialize experiencing immediate improvements in their abilities over their peers, this effect is generally short-lived.
According to research, “performance at one age in childhood has been found to be an unreliable predictor of performance even 2-5 years later. Furthermore, varying rates of secondary maturation create the well-known development phenomenon of the early and late maturer.” (3)
I do want to point out that there are a few sports that are an exception to this which are sports where the “elite” athletes tend to be younger, such as gymnastics and figure skating. (4)
For instance, Olympic-level female gymnasts tend to be teenagers so early exposure to the different technical aspects of gymnastics has shown some benefit but, even these athletes are exposed to multiple types of activities due to the nature of the sport.
Risks of Specialization
The problems surrounding this practice have become so apparent that no less than the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, American College of Sports Medicine, National Athletic Trainers Associations, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, International Federation of Sports Medicine, New Zealand Federation of Sports Medicine, European Federation of Sport Psychology, and the World Health Organization have all issued position statements against early specialization.(1-3,10,12)
The one thing that is consistent throughout the research is that early specialization in children leads to increased risk of injuries, burnout, and psychological issues. (1-10)
Children that participate in team sports are more likely to suffer from acute/traumatic injuries and those that are involved in individual sports experience an increase in overuse injuries. (10)
Injuries can have the obvious consequence of the athlete having to stop playing and competing but it can lead to other less obvious problems such as fear-avoidance behaviors i.e. fear to re-engage in sport or other physical activities, or altered biomechanics that can lead to problems later in life.
Multiple studies have shown that children that specialize earlier are more likely to stop playing their sport or “burnout” than those that wait till later to pick a single sport to play. (3,8)
According to Malina (4), signs of burnout can include “agitation, sleep disturbances, loss of interest in practice, depression, lack of energy, skin rashes, nausea, and frequent illness.”
He also goes on to identify that three primary factors that lead to burnout are negative/critical performance evaluations, inconsistent feedback from coaches and officials, and overtraining.
A whole host of psychological and social issues have been associated with sports specialization.
These include social isolation, unhealthy weight-control practices, overdependence, and physical/emotional abuse. (3,4,)
Another issue worth highlighting is the damage that can occur to the parent-child relationship. When a parent becomes overly-invested in their child’s athletic participation, the child can experience unrealistic expectations to perform, pressure to remain in a sport they don’t enjoy, competition anxiety, and so on. (3)
The question parents need to ask themselves is all this pressure worth it? Is the damage done to the parent-child relationship a worthwhile exchange for winning a rec league trophy?
How to Create a Healthier Sports Environment
The first thing everyone needs to do is just relax.
If you’re a parent of a child that’s involved in sports, you’ve probably noticed the increased number of practices and competitions and the increased pressure to have your child attend as many events as possible, lest they get left behind.
Everyone needs to step back and look at the situation and ask themselves, what is this all really about? The answer should be the kids and to give them the best opportunity to grow physically, mentally, and socially.
The answer for 99% of us is not getting a scholarship, playing professional sports, endorsement deals, or even winning a bunch of trophies that will end up collecting dust in a box on a shelf or in the attic later in life.
The NCAA tracks the likelihood of earning a scholarship in various sports, which you can see the latest chart by clicking here. In football, there is a 2.6% chance of earning a Div. I scholarship and only 1.5% of college players get drafted. In men and women’s basketball, there’s a 1% and 1.2% chance of playing Div. I ball, a 1.1% and .9% chance of going from college to pro, respectively. (14)
So, what are we playing for? Should our focus be on the 1% chance of a scholarship or on the guaranteed benefits our kids can achieve through sports and physical activity?
Here are some keys to creating a healthier sports environment for our kids.
1. Don’t specialize too early.
I would hope that I’ve already made this point fairly clear but, when is it okay for adolescents to specialize? Most research indicates a range of around 11-15 years of age, but that is sport-dependant. As mentioned before, some sports require earlier participation, like gymnastics.
This decision should be at their discretion though and not made due to pressure from parents or coaches. A good rule-of-thumb is basically when your child feels like it.
Children should also avoid specializing in a position within a sport. If you’ve ever watched youth basketball, the kids that have hit a growth spurt early are put underneath the basket where they rarely get a chance to handle the basketball.
Fast-forward a few years and they are average height so they no longer are an ideal post player but they never really developed ball-handling skills or distance shooting as well as they could so they have limited abilities as a wing or point guard.
This position-specialization can happen in many sports; goalies in soccer, catchers in baseball/softball, post players in basketball.
Encourage your children to sample many different sports, not necessarily at the same time. It does your family no good to place unnecessary stress on it due to a child’s recreational sports schedule.
Some people might be wondering about the Tiger Woods of the world. What about those kids that picked up their sport as soon as they started walking and haven’t stopped since?
As with everything in life, there is always an exception. There are famous athletes out there that began in their sport at a very young age, like Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, or Venus and Serena Williams.
The key difference with these athletes is that they had a strong internal motivation to practice and compete in their sport. They weren’t pressured or coerced by their parents or coaches.
Wayne Gretzky has been quoted as saying, “No one ever told me to practice”. (13)
Basically, there is no evidence that early exclusive specialization works for most kids in most sports but, will work for some kids in some sports.
2. Advocate for your kids
Realize that the main influencers on a child’s athletic endeavors are parents and coaches. We’ve all probably seen or personally experienced a youth coach that has no business coaching children (or anyone for that matter). They put winning above all else, regardless of the damage it does to their players.
We should insist that youth coaches teach basic fundamentals of the sport and not just how to exploit the rules or overutilize the kids on the team that are more physically mature.
For instance, I’ve coached youth basketball and we would play against teams that have one or two players that had obviously spent more time practicing basketball than the other kids on the team. The other players’ job on the team was to simply pass the ball to the good players. These coaches would then get angry and yell if one of the players that weren’t as good attempted to drive to the basket or shoot on their own.
In these instances, we as parents have to make what may be an unpopular decision to pull our child from the team or have a discussion with the coach that their behavior isn’t appropriate.
In this article from the New York Times, they make a good point in that if a coach was instead a French teacher and was screaming at a child because they didn’t conjugate a verb correctly that parents would be mad, so why should youth sports be different? (15)
Not only should parents expect good sportsmanship from their coaches but they should expect it from their sidelines as well. If you’ve spent any time whatsoever at youth sporting events, then you’ve been exposed to “those parents”.
The parents that scream constantly at their kids, the refs, the coaches. Coaches should start the season by setting expectations for the parents of the team that this type of behavior is unacceptable and we as parents need to make it clear to each other that we don’t find it acceptable either.
Even then, you’ll always have parents that don’t listen, so league referees and coaches should be encouraged and empowered to remove these parents from competitions.
Lastly, parents should have their kids participate in leagues that have age-appropriate practice and game time limits. Some coaches engage in “practice escalation” where they try to extend practice times or add on extra practices so they can gain an advantage over other teams.
This increases the risk of injury and it teaches the kids that it’s okay to break the rules to get an advantage when you’re playing sports. Parents shouldn’t be okay with this and need to speak out against it. Know the practice/competition time limits for your league and insist they be followed.
If your particular league doesn’t specifically list practice restrictions then you can usually find guidelines from that sports governing body or professional sports body. For instance, the NBA has a website for youth practice and game recommendations.
3. Encourage Deliberate Play
Just as deliberate practice is organized, structured, instruction with the intention of learning a sport or skill, deliberate play is unstructured, unorganized physical activity for the sake of fun. You know, how kids are supposed to play before us adults get in there and mess it all up.
Deliberate play is very important when it comes to physical development. Through unstructured play, children instinctively learn fundamental movement patterns which future sports techniques will build upon.
When we put the emphasis on sports training, young athletes miss out on normal movement development and are more prone to injury.
A perfect example of this is female athletes and ACL injuries. Without boring you too much with the details, females are predisposed to knee injuries due to having wider hips which put more stress on the knee joint.
When girls start in sports, if they don’t learn proper jumping mechanics, particularly landing mechanics, they are more likely to suffer an ACL injury. (6,7) With more free play, they are more likely to learn those important functional movements.
Another study showed if young athletes spent more than twice as many hours during a week in organized sports versus hours in free play, they were more likely to experience an overuse injury. This again implies that unstructured play may have a protective effect. (1,9)
Other benefits of deliberate play include experience with “trial and error, experimentation, and repetition; exposure to different conditions, skills, and rules; and variable settings associated with numbers available and seasonal changes. Skills acquired under such circumstances represent informal or implicit learning.” (4)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against sports for kids. I’m actually very much the opposite. I think all kids should be encouraged to participate in a sport or some type of physical activity.
I played multiple sports as a child and even had the opportunity to play football in college. I continue to be active today, primarily doing endurance sports.
I say this because the habit of an active lifestyle in adulthood is very much influenced by the what we do as children. Children that drop out of sports due to burnout, lack of enjoyment, excessive pressure, and so on, are more likely to remain inactive as adults which can lead to weight gain and the numerous other health problems plaguing society today.
Sports have so many benefits when they are done right and so many negatives when they are done wrong.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the focus on what youth sports are supposed to be all about.
I hope this post helps parents to pause for a moment and ask ourselves, are we doing what is in our children’s best interest or our own?
Encourage your kids to be active, help them to do their best. Celebrate with them when they win and support them when they don’t.
We only have a small window of time to help our children grow and develop before they are off on their own. Do we want that time to be spent on chasing accolades that, ultimately, don’t matter in the grand scheme of things or for developing a nurturing relationship and a physically mature son or daughter?
What do you think? Am I totally off the mark on or right on? Please comment and if you got something out of this post, please share it with others.
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- Fabricant, Peter D., Nikita Lakomkin, Dai Sugimoto, Frances A. Tepolt, Andrea Stracciolini, and Mininder S. Kocher. “Youth sports specialization and musculoskeletal injury: a systematic review of the literature.” The Physician and Sportsmedicine44.3 (2016): 257-62. Web. 3 July 2017.
- Wiersma, Lenny D. “Risks and Benefits of Youth Sport Specialization: Perspectives and Recommendations.” Pediatric Exercise Science12.1 (2000): 13-22. Web. 3 July 2017.
- Malina, Robert M. “Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks.” Current Sports Medicine Reports9.6 (2010): 364-71. Web. 3 July 2017
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- Lang, Pamela J., Dai Sugimoto, and Lyle J. Micheli. “Prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in children.” Open Access Journal of Sports MedicineVolume 8 (2017): 133-41. Web. 3 July 2017.
- Myer, Gregory D., Neeru Jayanthi, John P. Difiori, Avery D. Faigenbaum, Adam W. Kiefer, David Logerstedt, and Lyle J. Micheli. “Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes?” Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach7.5 (2015): 437-42. Web. 1 July 2017.
- Myer, Gregory D., Neeru Jayanthi, John P. Difiori, Avery D. Faigenbaum, Adam W. Kiefer, David Logerstedt, and Lyle J. Micheli. “Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes” Sports Health8.1 (2016): 65-73. Web. 1 July 2017.
- Pasulka, Jacqueline, Neeru Jayanthi, Ashley Mccann, Lara R. Dugas, and Cynthia Labella. “Specialization patterns across various youth sports and relationship to injury risk.” The Physician and Sportsmedicine(2017): 1-9. Web. 1 July 2017.
- Macnamara, Brooke N., David Z. Hambrick, and Frederick L. Oswald. “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Professions, and Education: A Meta-Analysis.” PsycEXTRA Dataset25.8 (2014): 1608-618. Web. 11 July 2017.
- Mcleod, Tamara C. Valovich, Laura C. Decoster, Keith J. Loud, Lyle J. Micheli, J. Terry Parker, Michelle A. Sandrey, and Christopher White. “National Athletic Trainers Association Position Statement: Prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries.” Journal of Athletic Training46.2 (2011): 206-20. Web. 11 July 2017.
- Reilly, Rick. “GOODNESS GRACIOUS, HE’S A GREAT BALL OF FIRE ONLY 19, AMATEUR SENSATION TIGER WOODS HAS THE GOLF WORLD SHAKING ITS HEAD IN AWE.” SI.com. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 July 2017.
- Dthomas. “Probability of Competing Beyond High School.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. N.p., 13 June 2017. Web. 12 July 2017.
- Sullivan, Paul. “The Rising Costs of Youth Sports, in Money and Emotion.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 July 2017.