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  • Alison Synakowski

Sports Specialization in Kids - Good or Bad?

This is a hot topic - should a kid play one sport or many sports? Will they fall behind if they are not focusing on the skills of their sport all of the time?

Sports specialization is define as “intense, year round training in a single sport with exclusion other sports”.

On a celebrity level - typically stories of young prodigies are shared, rather than the majority of stories of athletes who had a normal childhood, played various sports, were very active and only later in life specialized.

In a book called Range by David Epstein - the stories of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are shared.

Tiger Woods - clearly early on was a prodigy - by 2 years old he was driving the ball and beating 10 year olds in golf tournaments. He was a golfer the day he was born and there was no turning back. Most know Tiger’s childhood story.

Rodger Federer on the other hand - started with kicking a ball around, played squashed, skied, played badminton, soccer, wrestling, skateboarded, played handball and ping pong. Federer would say he was just interested if a ball was involved and that the variety of sports made him into who he is today. There was no pressure to play one thing - the exact opposite - encouraged to play as many sports as possible. His parents never pushed him, when he started playing tennis more and more they didn’t want him to take it too seriously. He didn’t want to move up to play with the better players, he wanted to be with his friends. He was a solid soccer player. He didn’t give up and specialize until his late teens.

Let’s start with this statement - research does NOT show that early, intense training is essential to reach an elite level - but yet many kids by the age of 10 years old have. Many may know this stat - it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill - however with playing a variety of sports there is a transfer of pattern recall from sport to sport and thus specific specialization is not needed.

Here are some impacts of early specialization.

Increased risk of injury

Put simply, increased time playing a sport equals increased chance of injury - simply due to exposure. Due to the high demands of practice schedules and games and being on multiple teams - there is more time playing and little build in rest time. Recovery time is essential as well to stay healthy. There is a big discrepancy between our kids and professionals - the pros take weeks, even months of rest every year.

Increased psychological stress and burnout

Twenty percent of athletes drop out of their sport due to injury. Otherwise- early specialization consistently is seen as a reason for dropping out of a sport. Kids who perceive high criticism from their parents are also likely to drop out of their sport. Once kids drop out of sport, their overall physical activity tends to reduce and then this becomes a long term health issue.

Here are some other facts

Improved success is actually associated with intense training starting at greater than 15 years old. Yes, intense training is good and needed to succeed - but not until the later years.

Early to middle elementary school aged children are the most at risk of negative impacts when specializing too early.

With all of the intense pressures of playing one sport, playing on club teams year round to keep up with everyone else - it is very hard to break this chain. I think about it everyday, my kids are 5 and 3 years old. How am I going to help them be with their friends, do what they love, but prevent them from specializing in something too soon. Answer - I have no idea. I am going to expose them to as much as I possibly can and let them guide me. I am going to try to encourage them to play different sports and participate in different activities and develop a range of activities so that they become a generalist before a specialist.

What do I recommend - again, hard question. I think the benefits of being on a team are irreplaceable. Maybe club teams take two months a year “off” - and still get together - but play ping pong, dodgeball, other sports rather than “their sport” - imagine the psychological benefit of this and how much fun it would be to get together, be active and have no pressure?!

Regardless - someone needs to lead this charge. Parents, stand your ground with your kids about playing something all year round, help them love many activities and not just one. Don’t succumb to the pressures of specialization. It will yield a high return with athleticism, love for physical activity and happiness.

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