The dangers of sport specialization

With spring in full swing and summer just around the corner, many parents find their free time booked solid shuttling their children from one activity to the next: baseball practice, dance class, swimming lessons, lacrosse games. 

Sports and activities are a rite of passage for many children and parents. They help children develop both physically and psychologically. Playing sports prepares them for success and failure in the future. It teaches skills such as teamwork, pride, respect of self and others. Sports teach children the importance of physical activity; keeps them active now; and will hopefully lead them to a lifelong commitment to exercise. For the aforementioned benefits to occur, however, the most important attribute of sports is that children must have FUN

At some point, however, the primary goal of sports turns from one that is driven primarily by fun to one driven by success. Certainly professional and most college sports should be driven primarily by success; varsity high school sports are often judged that way too. At what age or level should success become the driving force? College, high school, middle school . . . younger? 

It is becoming increasingly common for kids to specialize in one sport at ages as young as 11 or 12.  Many children and parents report doing this as they become pressured by coaches to participate in year-round practices, games, and tournaments. Some coaches tell them if they play multiple sports, players that play year-round will take their spot and pass them by. Playing multiple sports, however, allows cross-training to occur and reduces the likelihood of overuse injuries due to repetition. The need for winning becomes emphasized at younger and younger ages.  This pressure to succeed and excel at a sport at such young ages is unnecessary. As parents we should encourage our children to participate in a variety of activities to help them become well-rounded adults. Most importantly, early sport specialization should be discouraged as it takes some of the fun out of playing and becomes similar to a job. 

Sport specialization at a young age contributes too many injuries as children continue to stress the same body part(s) the same way throughout the year. This increases the chances of injury, as children are still growing. They have difficulty adapting to repetitive stress of the same body part. In baseball, for example, elbow surgeries for middle, high school, and college players have been on the rise over the past 10+ years.

If Player A pitches for a team in spring, summer, and fall every year and plays at an academy in the winter; he is essentially playing 3-4 seasons a year, likely pitching 100+ innings a year.  If he does this from 10 to 18 years old, he has played 24+ seasons with little to no break and thrown 800 innings. Player B, only playing spring and summer has only played 16 seasons, pitching about 66 innings a year or 528 innings (over 8 years), reducing his workload by approximately one-third. Player B is less likely to become injured throughout his career.    

As a healthcare clinician, I cringe every time I hear a parent of a pre-teen tell me “My child plays one sport, because they are going to get a college scholarship or play professionally.”

Although as parents we encourage our children to dream and shoot for the stars; setting realistic goals is also important. The odds of obtaining a significant college scholarship are slim. The odds of playing professionally are nearly zero^. The likelihood of getting hurt, on the other hand, is high. As parents, we need to make sure that our children our following their dreams, not ours. Do they want to play for themselves or us? Needless to say, if they are playing a sport to live out a parent’s dream, they are not having fun. Parents should be mindful that they are not putting too much pressure on children to succeed.

Playing youth sports is important as children can learn so much from their participation. Coaches need to be concerned with the development of the individual, and need to assure that they are having fun.

In the words of my colleague Craig Carvin, PT, (head varsity soccer coach Northampton High School), “The goal of youth coaches for players under 8 years old should be to make sure that every player has fun and wants to come back to play at the next practice, the next game, and the next season.”

Parents need to make sure they are supportive, stay positive, but understand that the likelihood of financial gain is extremely slim. Parents should challenge coaches that ‘require’ year-round play of young players. Playing multiple sports will allow the child to become a better overall athlete, will likely reduce the risk of overuse injuries, and prevent young athletes from losing interest. 

^According to the NCAA the odds of a high school player playing professionally for a US team is as follows:

  • Baseball = 0.6%
  • Football = 0.08%
  • Men’s Ice Hockey = 0.1%
  • Men’s Basketball = 0.03%
  • Men’s Soccer = 0.04%
  • Women’s Basketball = 0.03%

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.

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