Youth Athletes: How Early Should Your Kid Focus on One Sport?

Children are choosing one sport to focus on and specialize in at alarmingly younger ages.

And we’re not talking just about sports that have long attracted early specialization, such as gymnastics, figure skating or swimming and diving.

Boys and girls as young as nine or 10-years old are whittling their athletic pursuits to a single sport.

Early Sports Specialization Expanding

Sports such as soccer, tennis, ice hockey, basketball and others are also attracting early specialization. Most experts define early specialization as focusing on a singular sport by age 12, or roughly prior to Junior High.

First, before exploring how this happened, it’s important to examine why early specialization could be detrimental to your child.

Is Early Specialization Healthy For Your Child?

In most cases, the answer is no. There is strong, third-party evidence that single-sport specialization for children under 12 often can be a ticking time bomb.

According to wide-ranging research and leading coaching experts, kids that specialize in one sport face a few challenges.

Early Specialization Not Creating a Well-Rounded Athlete

Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse coach Janine Tucker told Lacrosse Magazine, “We prefer to recruit players who are multi-sport athletes for a variety of reasons. First among them the diversity of skill sets that they develop. It also allows opportunities to be leaders, to stay in good shape, to stretch themselves as athletes, communicators, teammates and leaders.

“Another benefit, maybe in one sport the kid shines and is a leader. In another sport, they may not be the superstar. So they learn to be humble, to be a good teammate and to support the go-to players. That’s a tremendous benefit.”

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon agreed with the value of multi-sport athletes. 

“I love cross pollination when it comes to athletes,” Maddon told the Chicago Tribune. “You get guys who played more than baseball, meaning they’ve been around a different set of coaches and styles and ways to get in shape and thoughts. I love that.

“That’s why I hate the specialization of kids when they’re on these travel squads that are full of 12 to 14 year olds dedicated to traveling all the time and paying exorbitant amount of money to play baseball with hopes of becoming a professional baseball player. I think that’s crazy.”

Early Specialization Brings Greater Risk of Overuse Injuries

The repetitive motions of playing a singular sport year-round, lead to a greater risk of overuse injuries. According to a 2014 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine report, “The findings reveal that the current literature, which reports overuse injuries comprise 50 percent of sports injuries, underestimates the burden of these injuries, since many do not result in time loss from sport.”

Early Specialization Causes More Emotional, Physical Burnout in Athlete

The same report also concluded, “…an emphasis on competition, collegiate scholarships and elite-level success has led to increased pressure to begin high-intensity training at young ages, often in only one sport. Consequently, overuse injuries and burnout are affecting many young athletes.”

Early Specialization Can Lead to an Unbalanced Lifestyle

Early specialization often leads to attaching an excessive amount of one’s self-worth and identity to one sport. The extra time commitment to specialize in one area can also lead to social isolation and missing out on normal childhood activities and relationships.

Why Is Early Specialization,  Growing?

The trend, much to the dismay of leading experts, has been fueled by a decade long “Perfect Storm” of societal and sports-specific trends.

1. Parents helping children find “their passion” at an early age

Originally seen as a way to stand out in the college admissions process, this trend has trickled down to younger ages. Many parents of this generation feel their child should find their purpose or “passion” at a precocious age. Finding one’s so-called “passion” and early specialization go hand in hand.

2. Youth sports travel and mega-youth sports complexes are recession proof

The more young athletes specialize, the more likely they are to travel. A decade ago, the youth sports tourism industry wasn’t even tracked. Now it’s the fastest-growing segment in the domestic travel industry, and in 2013 was estimated at more than $7 billion annually.

Even in the tough economic times of the last decade, parents still spend on their children. This has led to a snowball effect, starting with mega-youth sports complexes being built all over the country. Communities want a piece of the youth sports tourism pie. And more facilities being built lead to more travel. More teams are needed to fill the calendar year-round. More local coaches convince parents that their children need to play nearly year-round and travel to seek the best opportunities.

3. More adults are profiting off of youth sports

The more emphasis put on early specialization, the more opportunities exist for adults to profit. There has been an explosion of club (non-school) sports in the past decade. Many more adults are making their full-time living, or in many cases, supplementing their income through youth sports.

The list includes coaches (mostly non-parent coaches hired by clubs), trainers, league organizers, tournament/showcase/camp organizers, website owners and employees, the youth sports travel industry, and workers at mega-youth sports complexes being built all over the country.

4. The growth of social media like Facebook

Facebook has become a great companion for the family who invests a considerable amount of money, time and emotional resources into their child’s sports specialization. It feels good to share something you are proud of, or something you sacrificed for (maybe that big out-of-town tournament for your child).

Before Facebook, sharing your children’s accomplishments and activities with friends and family was usually limited mostly to face-to-face conversations, phone calls and Christmas cards. Now with Facebook, images and updates are easier to share – and in real time. Instead of telling one person, you can now reach hundreds of friends and family with one post or one photo.

Why Aren’t More Parents Saying No to Early Specialization?

It’s easier said than done. Here are some of the challenges that parents face.

1. Parents have a hard time saying no to local “experts”

It’s easy to dismiss something you read, even if it’s from nationally prominent medical or coaching experts. Despite the fact they have years of experience and “no dog in the race” you still have no interaction with them.

On the other hand, the so-called local “experts” have face-to-face interactions with you. They often have financial or other motivations (like wanting to build a stronger team with your child in the lineup). It’s hard to say no to them, despite the fact that they often have a conflict of interest and far less credentials than others (the experts you don’t have direct contact with).

2. Parents let fear and ego creep into their decisions

Many parents allow ego to get in the way. Some have unfulfilled dreams of their own. Others have over inflated opinions of their child’s potential. Yet, others spend too much time comparing their own child to others and their current status with club or select teams.

Understandably dreams of college scholarships are in the heads of youth sports parents. Youth sports organizers have developed a set of vocabulary within each youth sports culture, which also resonates within the ego of some parents. Is your child on a Select team, a Premier team, or an Elite team? Which league do they play in? There are acronyms galore and many status symbols for leagues and teams, even within one organization.

And when it comes to convincing parents that their children should specialize, don’t underestimate the power of fear. A universal parental desire is for their child to have good opportunities. No parent wants to hear that there child will be “missing out on something special.

Coaches who offer early specialization opportunities play right into those fears.

Less Isn’t Always More

Early specialization may make sense for your child at a certain age. But be sure to keep in mind what’s really at play when it comes to making this important decision in their athletic career.

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