The Cost of Early Sport Specialization in Youth Sports

The overwhelming trend right now is for kids to play one sport, play it year-round, and on elite travel teams that start at increasingly younger ages. Specialization is the name of the game. Gone are the days of switching sports as the seasons change. The consensus seems to be if you want your son or daughter to have a shot at playing on a high school team (never mind a college team), they will need to play the sport year-round and at the highest level possible, as young as possible. So, what’s the fallout from this?

Lower Income Kids Don’t Stand a Chance

The bi-product of specialization in youth sports is less talented recreation (rec) teams, less knowledgeable coaches at the rec level, and a slew of high cost, select travel teams with paid coaches that leave families on the lower end of the socio-economic scale out of the picture. Kids in families with less disposable income can’t sign up to play for expensive, elite teams. At the rec level, for the most part, coaches are less knowledgeable and have less training. As a result, we aren’t necessarily developing the “best” athletes . . . just the ones whose parents can afford expensive training. And kids with a higher socio-economic status are more likely to suffer from over-use injuries because they can afford the extra workouts, play and practice time.

Life-Long Health Problems from Over-Training

The definition of early sport specialization (ESS) is year-round focused sports training before a child has gone through puberty. We’ve all seen it. Maybe even under out own roofs. Soccer players who play a fall season with tournaments and late-season tournaments, followed by a winter season of indoor soccer or futsal plus training, then a spring season with early summer tournaments, followed by a summer season of Super Y and conditioning to get ready for fall. It never ends, and there is no break for young bodies or minds that need recovery time.

It doesn’t even have to be just one sport! Based on the amount of time spent playing, ESS can also include kids who play soccer, lacrosse and are on a year-round baseball team.

ESS can lead to an increased risk of injury. Common injuries include: growth plate injuries, joint abnormalities (shoulder, elbow, hip, and knee), stress fractures, and a high likelihood of psychological “burn out”. A study of 1,206 injuries in 17 and 18-year olds actually demonstrated that choosing one main sport was an independent risk factor for injury. While some of these injuries will heal with no long-term effects, many of them will become nagging health-problems as kids age into adulthood.

Specializing Later Improves Chances of Success

Many parents, coaches, and the players themselves think that by specializing early, they will have a leg up over competition. But studies have proven this not to be the case. In a majority of sports, elite athletes who focused on one sport early in their careers achieved less success than their counterparts who played multiple sports. A survey of 1,558 Olympic elite and non-elite athletes found that on average, elite athletes began sport specialization later in age. Elite athletes were also more likely to participate in multiple sports after the age of 11 than their non-elite counterparts. Elite athletes who specialize early tend to have shorter athletic careers than those who specialize when they are older.

Alternatives to Early Sports Specialization

From time to time, you read about college coaches and recruiters who comment how much they love multi-sport athletes. There is significant evidence that multi-sport athletes have better speed, coordination, strength, and are generally more physically fit. Most coaches also find the mental aspect of how these players read the game and can apply the skills and strategies from other sports to be an impressive advantage.

Although it’s difficult to swim against the tide, the bottom line is that young athletes should participate in multiple sports—for enjoyment, to learn teamwork, and to ensure balanced development of their muscles, joints, and nerves as they grow. Ensure your child has downtime—between seasons, during the summer, when they need it. Look for signs of burn-out (physical and mental). Look to achieve a balanced lifestyle—where school, extracurricular activities and free time are all prioritized.

If your kids, or you the parents, are always tired from running to practice, games, and back again, consider slowing down or scaling back your commitment. Kids need unstructured free time away from organized sports so that they can be creative in their own backyards.

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