Being the best, but at what cost: The disadvantages of early single sport specialization

by Megan C.

Over the years, society has created an environment where early sport specialization is not only accepted but encouraged. Having a three-year-old son, I have noticed firsthand the pressure placed on a child, at a young age, to identify with only one sport. For example, one of the first comments after my son was born was relating to the size of his hands and how he would make a great basketball player. More recently, comments have been made about his broad body frame and how this would be a beneficial attribute in the sport of hockey. Not to mention, walking into any children’s store and seeing an endless supply of t-shirts with “future hockey star” or any sport for that matter, branded across the chest. Although these are all seemingly meaningless gestures, they represent the current societal acceptance and pressures of early sport specialization and early self-identity with one sport.

“Single sport specialization was first reported in Eastern Europe with … sports such as gymnastics, swimming, diving, and figure skating” (Myer et al., 2015, p. 66). In a recent study Myer at al. (2015) found that approximately 30% of 1200 youth sampled, were highly specialized in one sport. The shift from unstructured and fun oriented youth activities to the current highly structured youth programs, demonstrates “the increased emphasis that today’s society has placed on winning” (Young, 2012). The focus of participating in youth sport has shifted from developmental benefits, such as increased confidence, interpersonal skills, and perseverance to winning and success. In previous decades, sport participation followed the motto of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, who claimed “the most important thing is not to win but to take part” (Young, 2012). However, the current and most accepted philosophy of sport aligns with the views of UCLA Bruins football coach, Henry Russell Sanders’, who stated “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” (Young, 2012).

Despite the statistics that each child has a 5.3% chance of playing a sport in college and 0.05% chance of playing a high-level professional sport, parents buy into the societal pressures of making their child best (Young, 2012). Thus, the recreation industry is able to capitalize off of this offering more specialized programs to younger age groups, and the cycle continues.

Consequences of Early Sport Specialization:

The weekly hours spent in intense training should not exceed the age of the child, or 16 hours, whichever is smaller (Myer et al., 2015). Exceeding this could have negative physical, psychological, intellectual, and social developmental implications.

  • The physical risks of early single sport specialization include overuse injuries, stress fractures, physical burnout, eating disorders, and delayed menstruation (Hecimovich, 2004). Also, limited exposure to multiple sports and activities can decrease motor and physical literacy skills, because the child focuses only on the specific set of movements, related to their sport of specialization (Myer et al., 2015).
  • The psychological risks of early single sport specialization are increased levels of stress, higher levels of pre-competitive anxiety, depression, and perfectionism (Hecimovich, 2004).
  • The intellectual risks of early single sport specialization are reduced cognitive skills due to the lack of unstructured play and constant exposure to one sport and set of guidelines (Myer et al., 2015). Without sport diversification, children may not develop proper neuromuscular patterns which increases injury prevention later in life (Myer et al., 2016). Also, Livingston, Schmidt, and Lehman (2016) found a relationship between years of participation and academic achievement, which suggests that youth who have participated in competitive soccer for a longer duration of time may have poorer academic performances in school.
  • The social risks of early single sport specialization are lack of social development opportunities, especially in individual sport participation, because all free time is devoted to structured sport participation (Hecimovich, 2004). Also, it was found that parents of children enrolled in competitive soccer have less enjoyment as a family overall, the longer their child has participated (Livingston, Schmidt, & Lehman, 2016). The decreasing levels of family enjoyment are believed to be caused by perceived sacrifices made and events skipped, by the family, because of excessive soccer participation (Livingston et al., 2016).
  • Early sport specialization limits the amount of time children have to engage in free play. The ratio of weekly hours in organized sports compared to unorganized time for free play is 2:1 (Myer et al., 2015). The developmental benefits of free play are increased creativity, problem solving skills, social skills, and leadership qualities. These skills are reduced when free play is eliminated.
  • Early sport specialization decreases both the aspects of fun and autonomy in sport, which are both linked to increased dropout rates.
  • At the elite level, children may leave their home to train before the age of 12 (Hecimovich, 2004). Thus, early specialization places extreme demands of early maturity and independence on young children.

Recommendations for Parents and Coaches:

  • Youth participation should be encouraged to participate in a multitude of sports to develop diverse motor skills (Myer et al., 2016).
  • Opportunities for unstructured play should be made a priority both at home and at school.
  • Children participating in sport should be monitored closely for fatigue and burn out (Myer et al., 2016).
  • Personal and team performance goals should be made to shift the focus from winning (Hecimovich, 2004). This allows teams to both measure and achieve success, without winning.
  • Coaches and parents should commit to focusing on performance, and not outcome (Hecimovich, 2004).
  • Recreational facilities and coaches should provide adequate breaks in sport seasons, for youth to engage in other recreational opportunities at a lower intensity level (Hecimovich, 2004).
  • Children should never be required to play through injuries, or continue participating in a sport they do not enjoy.
  • Parents and coaches should demonstrate the importance of fun in sport, by asking questions such as “did you have fun tonight?” instead of “did you win?” (Young, 2012).

As parents, coaches, and volunteers, we have a very important role to foster positive youth development. Given that enjoyment is the number one determinant of continued participation, I think it is important that we bring back the fun in sport. Every child is not going to be an elite athlete, but every child deserves an opportunity to participate (Hecimovich, 2004). Thus, recreational facilities should reverse the current trend of promoting early single sport specialization and provide more recreational sporting opportunities.

References:

Hecimovich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A literature review. Journal of Chiropractic, 41(4), 32-39. Retrieved October 30, 2016.

Livingston, J., Schmidt, C., & Lehman, S. (2016). Competitive club soccer: Parent’s assessments of children’s early and later sport specialization. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 39(3), 301-316. Retrieved October 30, 2016.

Myer, G. D., Jayanthi, N., DiFiori, J. P., Faigenbaum, A. D., Kiefer, A. W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L. J. (2015). Sports specialization, part II: Alternative solutions to early sport specialization in youth athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 8(1), 65-73. doi: 10.1177/1941738115614811

Young, C. C. (2012). The importance of putting the fun back in to youth sports. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 16(6), 39-40. Retrieved October 30, 2016.

 

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2 Responses to Being the best, but at what cost: The disadvantages of early single sport specialization

  1. johareid says:

    I would have to agree with your post completely. I was honestly very surprised at three years old, a child is being told he has broad shoulders would be a good asset for hockey and his big hands would be good for basketball. This is basically setting him up to believe he is an athlete before even trying anything else. Children grow up but may not necessarily have the same attributes once they hit puberty.

    I remember one guy who specialized in hockey from the time he was young. I can’t speak for him and say he enjoyed it or not but you’d rarely see the guy anywhere. His father had an outdoor rink every year and he was expected to utilize it. He didn’t burnout because he’s still playing the sport but I feel as though he didn’t reach the social level he could have if he was with others rather than just the hockey team.

    Sport specialization is a funny topic. You never know if someone will agree with it or disagree with it, even if they know the research around it. I used to always say ‘my children will play hockey’ but now learning about positive youth development, I will be saying ‘my children will participate in whatever their hearts want’.

    Johanna R.

  2. tabitharose123 says:

    Interesting blog, Megan!

    I would definitely agree that focus on one sport, rather than many is a very big in the parents’ eyes. I also do agree that the reason for this push on one specific sport is because of the hope that their child will play in the high leagues, but I think that another huge reason is that of getting a free way through university. One of my very close friends puts hours daily into his high-school aged brother and sister to improve their basketball skills. His goal is not for them to play in the NBA. He only wants them to be able to get a scholarship.

    Concerning the importance of bring back fun, I think it is very important, especially after all the discussions in class about positive youth development through it (like social skills and critical /creative thinking).

    This is what was nice about growing up in a small community. Participation in every sport is possible! There were no tryouts, so the teams were made up of kids with a large range of skill level. Through this, I learned the importance of fun, and that it was not only about winning. Better friendships were made through this, by learning to accept others, even through their mistakes, work together, and improve as a team.

    I also wanted to agree on the idea that the focus in on one sport can be challenging for a youth’s development. A lot is usually expected from them because of the high level of competition. And as you mentioned, it is a very important time for that child to grow through unstructured play, and they may never learn certain skills because of their involvement solely in a specific, highly structured sport.

    Tabitha

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