In my first and second posts regarding sport specialization, I wrote more about the benefits of multiple sport participation than the detriments of specialization. In today’s post, I want to direct coaches and parents towards data that speaks against specialization.
Let me start with a quick recap about the type of specialization that I’m talking about. When I speak of specialization, I’m referring to the kids who are pushed/nudged/encouraged to specialize by (a) coaches who want kids to focus on their sport for the benefit of the coach’s program, (b) parents who want kids to specialize in order to be a high school superstar, a college athlete, or to chase an athletic scholarship or professional contract, and (c) those adults who run club based sports who want kids to be in their clubs for either their own monetary gain or to have some claim to the possible future success of the kid.
I am not referring to kids who (a) specialize because they simply have no interest in other sports (but, please allow the kids to experience other sports before they have the opportunity to decide they don’t like them!), (b) are limited for physical reasons, (c) play one sport to allow time for other activities, or (d) in limited cases, need to participate in only one sport because of the learning curve of the sport itself (in our athletic program, only gymnastics falls into this category – although I’ve seen successful high school gymnasts be successful in other sports, too).
All of that said, here are some reasons to avoid forced specialization in youth athletes.
1. Overuse injuries
This could be stated without much explanation. If tender, growing joints are subjected to the same movements and stress without rest and recovery, those joints are going to get hurt. Pick your favorite sport, and you’ll see that at least one set of joints is more susceptible to injury as a result of those sport specific movements. World renowned surgeon for the stars, Dr. James Andrews, has spoken multiple times in the past few years about this more recent phenomenon. He focuses his discussion around the increase in Tommy John surgeries (to repair a ligament in the elbow) in younger athletes, specifically baseball players. Can the possibility of injury be reduced through a well designed and implemented training program that incorporates rest time? Of course…but how many of our club sports are being run by individuals who match that description? It has been my observation that most of our club sports and specialized camps are being run by sport specific knowledgeable people/parents who aren’t familiar with periodization or safe training regiments. For more on overuse injuries, check out this article by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. (*Warning – it’s lengthy.)
This isn’t a new concept. Kids get bored when they have to do the same thing over and over again. Couple that repetition of the same activity with outside pressure placed on the kid by adults, and it’s a perfect recipe for burnout. Burnout can be caused by many factors, but it ultimately occurs when kids feel helpless about their ability to meet external (or internal) expectations. For more detailed research on burnout, check out the same research from the American Medical Society linked in the previous paragraph.
3. Lack of free play time
This is especially important for the development of young kids. Kids who are allowed time to free play – outside of the structure of organized sports – tend to be more creative, have better basic motor skills, learn more social/emotional skills, and find ways to just have fun while playing. One of my favorite sport memories growing up was at the swimming pool in the summer where we created a game in the pool that we called baseball but was really more of a baseball-football-water polo-dodge ball hybrid. By the time the swimming pool was open for open-swim in the afternoon, we had already had our swimming lessons and baseball practices done for the day. This was an opportunity to do our own thing and just have fun.
4. Social/emotional development
I mentioned this briefly in the last paragraph, but young kids who are always involved in an adult-led, organized activity are at risk for stunted growth of their social and emotional skills. When adults are always in charge, kids don’t learn how to communicate with each other, how to problem solve, how to solve disagreements, or how to just have fun for the sake of having fun. All of these are important skills that we use in the adult world as well. Aside from that, increased time in one activity naturally leads to decreased time in all other activities. This narrows a kid’s social circle and number of experiences outside of the specialized sport. One of my favorite researchers, John O’Sullivan, speaks passionately about this problem, among others, in his writing about specialization.
5. Pressure to Perform and Succeed
Kids who are encouraged to specialize in a sport for any reason are often placed on a pedestal by the adults around them (I’ve written about this before when discussing Groupie Parents). As I mentioned earlier, specialization often occurs as a result of coaches or parents who want kids to “be the best they can be” without acknowledging that there are many paths to that goal. The younger the kids are, the fewer coping skills they have acquired to deal with this kind of pressure. For a deeper perspective on this issue from a parent, check out this excellent blog post.
I could go on, but I don’t want to be the lone voice on this issue…because I’m not! Literature and opinions on this topic are wide-spread. Some of the better articles, blogs, and research I’ve read recently can be found here:
A research based article from an author at Queen’s University in Ontario (discusses pros and cons of specialization in support of diversification),
This excellent research based study from an author at the Univ. of Texas (discusses the start of specialization, some of the reasons behind it, whether or not it’s effective, and the detriments of it),
This excerpt from a book called Long-Term Athlete Development (which discusses the harmful effects of early specialization and the benefits of late specialization for select kids at the right time),
This blog post from an athletic counselor (specifically focused on the mental effects of specialization on younger kids),
This research article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (listing and describing multiple detriments to specialization but also including a list of recommendations for parents and young athletes,
And this blog from an author who researches and writes about becoming successful at just about anything. This one is shorter and to the point – a good read if you’re a parent who’s still on the fence about asking your kid to specialize.
Thoughts? Opinions? Comments? What did I get right? What did I get wrong? Let me know!