The Dangers of Limiting Yourself: Sports Specialization in Youths

With the number of sports available at the youth level, it is hard to see an individual not participating in some sort of activity. The sports accessibility (travel and club) allow the youth athlete to remain active year-round and promote a healthy lifestyle. One issue with this is the conversation in sticking with one sport year-round. Lately, there has been an ongoing belief by parents, and coaches that by having their child/player specialize in just one sport year round will benefit them and ultimately improve their chances for a shot at the next level after high school. Limiting the child to one sport will harm a number of attributes and lower more than just their batting average. Each year 40 million children play youth sports, 70% drop out and quit by the age of 13, and 3 out of 4 children are done with sports before high school. These surprising stats do not seem so staggering when we consider the stress on both the mind and body sports can have at a young age. This misconception has left everyone with a question-mark on their heads and a feeling of being lost. If you want what’s best for your young athlete then early sports specializing is not the answer. Here’s why:

  • Specializing in a single sport can cause the athlete to have a “burnout effect” and not want to participate in what was once their favorite memory
  • The youth athlete can be more susceptible to injury
  • You lose creativity within the athlete with the same routine

Doing the same routine over-and-over again can cause a lack of motivation when that routine is forced on you. Youth athletes start off playing a sport not because they are good at it, but because they’re friends are involved and it is fun. Robbing a child of this can be done by specializing in one sport. The influence a parent has on the child can backfire when the child becomes stressed about constantly performing well and excelling in a single sport. When the athlete is not performing well, the parent and coach begin to ride this athlete to the point of exhaustion. The constant pressure can give the young athlete stress, developing a “burnout effect” as the lack of enjoyment is decreased. A study by Ohio State University researchers found that children specializing in one sport led to a higher chance for adult physical inactivity taking place. What this means is, quitting a sport at a young age can actually carry over to adulthood and cause the question of “what if?” for a lifetime. Having fun and learning from a sport should be part of the experience in growing up.

The youth athlete can be more susceptible to injury when specializing in a sport at a young age. A study compiled of 1200 youth athletes found that early specialization in sports is one of the biggest factors leading to an injury. The study watched youth athletes in early specialization year round. The results showed between 70%-93% of youth athletes specializing in a sport were more likely to get injured than youth athletes plating multiple sports. This may be hard to believe but the youth athletes focusing on one sport year-round does not give the muscle any rest. When the muscle is not resting the young athlete is constantly trying to improve their play because of the ongoing pressure; causing the neglect to soreness and can eventually lead to serious injury. These injuries can cause stress fractures and injuries to the joints, knees, hips, back, and ankle. Chronic injuries can occur when early specialization takes place as the muscle does not have a chance to rest and the athlete is right back into doing the same sport that caused the injury in the first place. When sports injuries occur it is recommended to visit a sports doctor who experiences these types of injuries on a day-to-day basis. The proper procedure must take place in order to get the athlete back into the sport they love.

Early sports specialization can cause a lack of creativity when concentrating on one sport. When playing multiple sports, an athlete is able to adapt to different situations rather than the same pattern. Decision making is lost and the creative aspect of achieving a goal is no more. Multi-sport athletes have improved motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and overall athletic development that will help the athlete achieve experience and longevity within the sport. Most college athletes did not partake in early specialization, as participating in multiple sports helped them with one specific sport that they would eventually excel in. Before the age of 12, 80% of activity should be spent playing multiple sports other than the chosen sport of the parents. By age 13-15 the athlete should have their time split between the main sport and other activities. This pattern will then transition into 20% of the athlete’s energy dedicated to a non-specialized sport. The whole purpose is to gradually get the athlete involved with their main sport as it will improve longevity, skill, and overall attitude toward the sport.

The 10,000 Hour Rule  

The big conversation going around is that the athlete needs 10,000 hours of experience with a sport in order to be elite. The cause of this “rule” has made parents and coaches scramble to sign up their young athlete to travel teams, and out of season leagues at a large cost. Specific studies have been done to show that many sports have much less time dedicated to them in order to play at the next level. This 10,000 hour rule fails to mention that genetics, coaching, and pure luck also play a factor rather than just long hours of practice.

Sports specialization at the youth level should be examined more carefully as many factors can have a negative effect on the athlete. Patience and having fun will develop the athlete for the better and eventually create time to specialize in one sport. The youth athlete will play the sport on their terms and choose how much they would like to put in to it. The benefits can be endless as improvement of their bodies, skills, and overall mental state can have a lasting effect on the athlete that can turn them into elite.

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