Playing sports is a staple of the American childhood experience and involvement has a proven track record of benefits for kids.
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play reports that physically active children have up to 40 percent higher academic test scores, are 15 percent more likely to go to college and are less likely to engage in at-risk behavior such as smoking, drug use and drinking.
But putting too much emphasis on athletic performance in young people can come with some pitfalls, say experts who are now warning against children specializing in one sport too early.
Sport specialization is intense training in a single sport while excluding others. Experts say it’s rising in early childhood and middle school, despite evidence that intense training, or lack of it, in a particular sport before puberty does not have a significant impact on rising to elite status.
A study published in the journal Sports Health found that besides increased risk of injury, sports specialization too young can lead to psychological stress and an increased likelihood that children will drop out of sports completely before reaching their potential.
Less than 1 percent of athletes ages 6 to 17 achieve elite status in the major U.S. sports of soccer, basketball, softball and football, the study found, making the risks of such specialization higher than the potential rewards, statistically speaking.
Dr. Philip Agostinelli is board-certified in sports and orthopedic medicine and the clinic manager at Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. He’s also a certified athletic trainer and played several sports growing up in Florida.
He says the trend to start having children specialize in one sport means an increase in the number of younger patients he’s seeing with sports-related injuries./aside">>
“Playing just one sport year round is leading to higher injuries in young people, particularly with sports like baseball with repetitive movements,” Agostinelli says.
He cites studies from the American Sports Medicine Institute that show overuse of particular muscles as problematic for young athletes in the long term.
“Most kids won’t become professionals, so they should take breaks in sports or switch up sports by season. They’ll end up playing the main sport better in the long run,” Agostinelli says.
Patrick J. Cohn, who holds a doctorate, is a sports psychology coach at Peak Performance Sports in Orlando who says that specializing too early or allowing a sport too much weight in the life of a young person can have negative effects beyond the physical.
“Parents might emphasize the sports role over other areas of their kids’ lives, and then those athletes define themselves through their athletic endeavors,” he says. “I work with a lot of perfectionist athletes and sports seems to encourage this.”
Cohn points out the benefits of sports, such as teamwork, discipline, confidence and focus. These are all obtained with a healthy approach to making sports part of a larger-picture life though, he says.
“You don’t want to encourage specialization of one sport too early,” he says. “Parents can encourage their kids to embrace the benefits of health and fitness by being good role models and providing outlets for fitness outside of sports, too.”
For some families, the upsides of specialization are worth the potential pitfalls.
Jay Holgate is a sports psychologist and life coach based in Jacksonville who believes that sports as a focus for kids can lead to greater opportunities all around.
“Sports is a life teacher. Many times, organized sports provide consistent repetition which is needed to get better,” he says. “Most kids do better in an organized team environment, more so than exercising alone. So organized sports works well for giving kids exercise and life lessons.”
In recent years, Holgate says he’s seen a rise in “sports parenting” — or parents who spend a significant amount of time actively managing their kids’ sports life, similar to parents who take an active role with children involved in the entertainment industry. These “momagers” or dads make sure sports commitments are a priority.
“I meet with athletes every day who home school so they can spend more time training and getting mentally tougher,” he says. “It gives flexibility for competing in tournaments, too.”
While fitness is at the core of sport training, Holgate says there are other tangible benefits.
“With the high cost of college education, parents see sports much more as an investment than ever before,” he says. “Average college costs are $25,000 to $50,000 per year, so an athletic scholarship is a great opportunity to get a solid education without going into a huge debt.”
A Healthy Approach
The temptation to go all in with one sport too early is palpable but the experts interviewed for this article have some tips for a better approach to building healthy athletes.
- Make fitness an everyday task. “It can be as simple as a kid shooting baskets in the driveway, or talking family walks or bike rides regularly,” Agostinelli says. “Make it fun. Go geo-caching or play Pokemon Go. There are so many ways to be active but you do have to make the choice as a family to make it happen.”
- Focus on more than the physical. “Sports teaches us to be the best we can be. If you look around, sports people are happier in life. Sports forces us to believe in ourselves, be optimistic and conquer our fears. These skills help us to be good employers, employees, family members, neighbors and friends,” Holgate says.
- Remember that it is supposed to be fun. “Remind your kids about the people or events that make sports fun for them. This may be playing alongside a best friend or being with a coach they love. Let them know you want them to enjoy themselves out there,” Cohn says.