Early Sport Specialization and its Effects on Youth

by Tristen B.

With a lot of research around this topic and after a very good discussion in class today, I figured this would make for a great blog post for the class. Is early sport specialization good for kids? Will he/she be successful if he/she only plays one sport competitively throughout his childhood. In my opinion and in others’ opinions, no, sport specialization is a slippery slope and parents need to allow their child to value fun and development over winning and specific abilities.

With the amount of children dropping out of sport at a young age (70% of kids by age 13), is it worth it to only have a child play one sport? If they’re going to drop out of sports, shouldn’t they try as many as they can? Or, let’s say they don’t quit, and continue playing sports, should they not have a choice of sports to choose from if they want to play competitively at a high level? Why would parents or coaches shrink a child’s chance at success? In a study done by the United States Olympic Committee, they asked more than 300 Olympians (2000-2012 games) and they found that these athletes participated in an average of 3 sports until 14. This counters the argument of early specialization is creating the highest chance of success and gives us a great look into the benefits of multi-sport youths.

Secondly, sorry parents,  chances are your child is not going to play their specialized sport past high school. Only 3% of kids play their sport past high school. So if you were spending a lot of money for private lessons, or traveling to be on the best teams, or to play at the best competitions, just so they’ll receive a scholarship, it’s probably not going to happen. Only 1 in 10,000 high school athletes get a partial scholarship. That’s 0.01% of high school athletes. Even with this tiny percentage of scholarships, parents are still thinking that their child is going to get one. Parents can not bank on their child to get a scholarship, little Timmy the hockey player isn’t an investment with a return; he’s a child that wants to have fun. He should still strive to reach that scholarship and reach that next level, but it’s a tough thing to do.

On a personal level, I contribute all of my success to being a multi-sport athlete. There is no way I could be the volleyball player I am without my background in playing as many sports as I could. In elementary school, I played everything under the sun, soccer to basketball, hockey to kickball to baseball to volleyball. Even into junior high, my abilities of being an athlete, not a (Insert sport here) player were what I cherished most. My life post-secondary is now all about volleyball and school, and it’s the best life I could have asked for, all because of playing multiple sports. The biggest thing that I did when I was a kid was have FUN. I played sports because they were fun, not because I was going to university for my parents, and not to be a professional, but because I wanted to smile and laugh with my friends while playing. If we specialize early and focus on winning, the child values winning over fun, and then values winning over following rules, and then values winning over the opportunity to play.

I guess I could almost title this “A Letter for the Parents of the Next Professional Athlete”, as it kind of turned out that way. I feel strongly about keeping youth sports based in fun, and I believe that early specialization takes a lot of the fun out of playing, not all of it, but other things begin to hold more value. Please, don’t raise a Tiger Woods, and raise a Steve Nash instead.

A great article that gave me the inspiration for this can be found here:

http://changingthegameproject.com/3-myths-that-are-destroying-the-youth-sports-experience-for-our-kids/

and another interesting article about “Hockey Sickness” can be found here:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hockey-sickness-hnat-domenichelli

References, other than the two above:

Buchanan, T. (2014, December 14). USOC: The Formula for Developing Elite Athletes. Retrieved October 2, 2015, from http://www.uslacrosse.org/multimedia-center/blog/postid/820/usoc-report-the-formula-for-developing-elite-athletes.aspx

www.changingthegameproject.com

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5 Responses to Early Sport Specialization and its Effects on Youth

  1. mmurchie15 says:

    I agree with most of the arguments you’ve made in this blog. I think early sports specialization can in fact have a negative impact on positive youth development. However I also believe that it depends on the circumstances, that in some situations in early sport development might be good for a child’s development. Playing multiple sports at a young age definitely has its positives. You learn more diverse skills, you interact with different groups and potentially make more friends, and you get to experience all the fun different sports can provide. Nonetheless, playing only one sport has some positives as well. Its often said that children in today’s society have extremely busy schedules. Focusing on only one sport could give the child more time for “free play”, or to focus more on school, spend more time with family or friends, or just relax. Early specialization also (obviously) can help development specific skills, which can lead to more opportunities when that child is older. Plus there always seems to be a negative viewpoint when we discuss early specialization in sport. It is like everyone assumes the parents force the child to pick that particular sport. What if the parent ask their child to choose one sport to play, but it is 100 percent the child’s decision? Reasons to why the parents are doing this might be because of time issues, maybe financial reasons, or maybe they just don’t want their child’s schedule being to hectic. Does early sport specialization necessarily mean less fun as well? Playing one sport should be just as amusing as playing multiple sports.

    Anyway this is just one mans opinion. Like I mentioned, I do agree with many points you’ve made and I am also a big believer in youth playing multi sports. I just think people are quick on assumptions regarding why a child might specialize in one sport.

    Great blog,

    Michael Murchie.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I definitely agree with you Tristen, I think the thought of parents forcing their children into specializing on a certain sport early on in childhood is not the way to see them succeed on any level. The child may not develop properly physically because they would be limited to doing the same repetitions over and over with no variety to help build their growing muscles. As you mentioned an extremely small amount of children will play at the college or university level and even less will make it to the professional ranks in their sport, so why do parents push them in the hopes that will. On a personal level, I was always playing every sport available at my school and would be playing hockey all winter and baseball all summer. However, in grade 12 I did specialize, although it was my decision and not my parents. I chose to play baseball after being offered a scholarship to play high school baseball for the Dawgs in Okotoks Alberta. At this school you are not allowed to play other school sports because you could get injured but also you just wouldn’t have time to do so. I feel that my hockey skills helped me to play baseball and vise-versa as I was a goalie in hockey with a pretty good glove hand. Youth benefit so much more from playing multiple sports growing up and I think that they should do so until that option just isn’t available to them anymore.

    Great Post,

    Andrew Hughes

  3. I definitely agree with you Tristen, I think the thought of parents forcing their children into specializing on a certain sport early on in childhood is not the way to see them succeed on any level. The child may not develop properly physically because they would be limited to doing the same repetitions over and over with no variety to help build their growing muscles. As you mentioned an extremely small amount of children will play at the college or university level and even less will make it to the professional ranks in their sport, so why do parents push them in the hopes that will. On a personal level, I was always playing every sport available at my school and would be playing hockey all winter and baseball all summer. However, in grade 12 I did specialize, although it was my decision and not my parents. I chose to play baseball after being offered a scholarship to play high school baseball for the Dawgs in Okotoks Alberta. At this school you are not allowed to play other school sports because you could get injured but also you just wouldn’t have time to do so. I feel that my hockey skills helped me to play baseball and vise-versa as I was a goalie in hockey with a pretty good glove hand. Youth benefit so much more from playing multiple sports growing up and I think that they should do so until that option just isn’t available to them anymore.

    Great Post,

    Andrew Hughes

  4. peryan2015 says:

    Great job on the blog post my friend! Hard to make much more comment on what you’ve already detailed in your post in terms of early sport specialization. We live in a country (Canada) that is very in tune to the sporting community but in terms of early sport specialization, hockey is king. Other countries have their own sports to call their own, Norway has X-Country skiing, the USA has american football, and New Zealand has their strong rugby connection. It would be curious to see a study about these sports and their relationship with early sport specialization in their respective countries, but we now only have speculation. Why do kids only play one sport? Can all the blame be laid upon the parents or is it also a decision of the youth in question? I think the relationship and communication in terms of participation in sport is a very fragile one. Parents should never FORCE their kids do a sport because they believe it will pay off in later years, nor should kids have the ability to talk their parents into letting them do every single sport they want. In every household balance is key, and that doesn’t change in the youth’s relationship with sports.

  5. amurchi1 says:

    Great article!!
    You are correct there are many benefits to trying out different sports. During my time in high school if you were a member on the swim team you had to participate on the track and cross country team. Our coach believed in cross training and supporting other teams. Sports like swimming and running are also used as technique and practice together as the water has less resistance and vice versa.

    However there are many sports that do require early specialization here is some support for early specialization, with the strongest support in sports in which peak performance occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, specifically women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating. Many sports that list flexibility as an asset requires youth to start young as after the age of 12 your flexibility level begins to decline. And it is very hard to accomplish that in a sport that the majority of the skills revolve around flexibility.

    Also self esteem in youth is a very serious issue there for Early sports success, such as by making a specific team, can lead to increased self-esteem. This would also motivate the child to stay in the sport longer and motivate them to pursue the sport.

    I believe this decision is highly subjective as many children are different some find out their talents later in life and some are lucky enough to find it early on. But to succeed in sport a child needs to have talent, therefore once they found that sport they have the talent in and which they enjoy, then would be the time to specialize no matter what age.

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