Early Sports Specialization Is Hurting Our Youth.
Early sports specialization is more popular that ever. Driven by parents and coaches, specializing in 1 sport is hurting our children's health in more ways than most realize.
Many over 45 years of age or older will remember a time of youth when kids participated in different activities throughout the years.
Tennis, golf, wiffle ball, baseball, soccer, touch football, hide and seek, hopscotch, tag and other games/activities were common in neighborhoods during the warm months. The colder climates had kids skating on ponds and local rinks, playing street hockey, skiing and building snow forts. Kids were out, and playing with what they had. From stickball to hitting golf balls down at the field. There was little in the house to keep youngsters amused. Little on the screen other than Saturday mornings and certainly very few video games. Some activities/sports were organized by an adult, but most were not.
Fast forward to today, and the last 20 or so years, and we have seen a growth early sports specialization. Kids are not out playing in the neighborhood for various reasons. Most activities/sports that kids participate in are organized and driven by coaches and parents, often with different goals for the game than the participants. It is also less common now to have a multisport athlete in middle or high school, because the norm has become for young athletes to specialize in a single sport at younger ages. There is increased pressure to participate at a high level, to specialize in 1 sport early, and to play year-round, often on multiple teams.
How do we define Early Sports Specialization?
Early sports specialization (ESS) has been defined with the following three criteria:
(1) Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport more than 8 months per year, or approximately year-round;
2) Participation in one sport to the exclusion of participation in other sport or limited free play;
(3) Involving prepubertal children, seventh grade, and/or younger than age 12 years. 1
Why is ESS happening?
While there are multiple theories, the most prevalent is that focusing on one sport is required to excel at that sport in later teen years and into college. Influences of this though process include Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory from his book Outliers. The idea that to be truly elite, you need to log in about 10,000 hours in an activity, and if our children don’t specialize they will fall behind their peers and miss out. What supports this theory is the initial improvement parents and coaches often experience when more practice is applied to the chosen skill.
Who is driving ESS?
Parents and coaches for the most part. In the below article from USA hockey, they reference a at Columbia University which surveyed parents and found that they expected their children to play a collegiate or professional sport! Furthermore, almost 60% of those parents encouraged their kids to specialize early in one sport before the age of 12. 1
On the coaching side, year round teams, off season camps, and specialized coaching have also contributed to the growth of ESS.
What is the real impact to ESS?
The evidence is prominent, and it finds that for most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.2
Parents and coaches can re-read this last statement. ESS results in higher injury rates, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.
When this data is cross referenced with the lower participation rates found in young athletes, the impact of this trend starts to hit home.
What are solutions to ESS?
Parents, coaches and administrators need to consider the following in addition to the above mention data.
Let’s look at Norway.
Norway has a 93% youth sports participation rate (compared to approx. 50% or less in North America). The economic costs and barriers to sport are low, travel teams don’t form until the teenage years, and coaches don’t intervene to separate the talented from the average until high school. The result at the last Winter Olympics speaks for itself. Norway, a country of just 5.8 million people, won the most medals with 39, the U.S. by comparison had 23. Early sports specialization is unheard of Norway. 3
One of the documented reasons for parents pushing the ESS agenda is the concept of receiving college scholarships for their athletes.
The below study found overwhelmingly that college athletes play multiple sports growing up.
• 94.7% of specialized athletes had previously played another organized sport prior to college, and 45% of athletes had played multiple sports up to age 16 years.
• Early sports specialization is uncommon among NCAA Division I athletes for most team sports, whereas individual sports tend to have athletes who specialize earlier and are more motivated by professional and collegiate goal. 4
2. Encourage multiple activity participation.
Schools have a role to play by re-embarking on introducing children to multiple activities. Back to the future where daily physical education is re-instated and exposure to the different activities becomes a priority is essential.
While our school boards are currently receiving millions of dollars in grants to build out protection versus viruses, perhaps a small percentage of that money can be earmarked for health and physical education?
Community organizations have a role to play as well, with limitations on season length and encouragement of developmental activities like other sports and martial arts for example as ways to develop during the down season.
Ultimately, it comes to parents and the influence they exhibit at home. The direction provided to their children with a focus on trying different activities is critical in not only developing the physical but also the mental benefits of regular physical activity through sports and skill development.
References for this article:
More on Youth Development Through Sports
More on The Norway model, some of the basic tenets behind development, some will surprise you.