SportsMed: The dangers of early sport specialization
Compared to previous generations, children today are becoming more exposed to year-round, recurring-season participation in a single sport. Parents hope that their children can become sports superstars, and the pressure to play a single sport at younger ages has become more pronounced as salaries of professional athletes skyrocket. Parents assume that specialization increases their children’s chances of becoming elite stars.
An athlete’s parents will always be their strongest influence. Coaches, however, are the strongest influence as far as specialization.Science shows that it is wiser to wait for sport specialization. Studies show that becoming part of a travel or high school team is more likely to be associated with innate talent, rather than early participation in a sport. The belief that countless hours of practice leads to superlative performance in young athletes may not be backed by solid data. Exceptions may be sports that peak in or around adolescence, such as gymnastics and cheerleading.
It appears that early sport specialization may actually be more detrimental than helpful to young children. Structured programs focus too much on deliberate practice, competition and training. This focus tends to gloss over age-appropriate recommendations for sports participation.
Parents’ tendency to encourage sport specialization has also led to kids being forced into sports that they do not necessarily find enjoyable. As a result, they may not have the opportunity to discover the sport with which their athletic abilities are truly compatible. Participation in a single sport due to parents’ constant influence may not give children the social, emotional and physical rewards that sports are supposed to give.
Based on more recent psychology and sports medicine studies, allowing children to participate in a variety of sports, with less structure, produces better athletes. It also allows for greater internal motivation and a real enjoyment of sports. Burnout and injuries decrease with this approach, allowing for sports participation extending throughout an athlete’s lifetime.
Specializing in one sport in childhood tends to lead to physical inactivity in adulthood. These children experience higher quit rates due to burnout, less enjoyment in sports, decreased motivation and greater stress. This leads to a variety of consequences that adversely affect individuals throughout their lives.
Pediatric orthopedists have found that 50 percent of overuse injuries occur in young athletes who are trying to participate in one sport in a structured manner. One of the highest predictors of injury in children is early specialization. These children are 70 to 93 percent more likely to get injured than children who play multiple sports while growing up. The injury rates are greater for children who specialize early, with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, tendon or ligament damage, and knee pain.
Research has also shown that children who participate in multiple sports have better sports abilities and skills. They have more confidence, motivation, longer playing careers, and better athletic and motor development. Multi-sport children become more creative and intelligent athletes, due to pattern recognition skills and improved decision-making capabilities. Young athletes with these attributes have a higher acceptance rate into collegiate athletics, compared to children who specialized in one sport.
There is a prevailing theory that elite athletes must spend about 10,000 hours practicing. This belief is not supported by research. Most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of practice. Actual research points to about 6,000 hours for wrestling, 4,000 hours for field hockey and 4,000 hours for basketball. The idea of 10,000 hours is a misinterpretation of previous scientific work, suggesting that number as a threshold for high-level, standout performance in other life endeavors — not sports.
Other factors may be just as influential for success, such as luck, opportunity, quality of coaching and genetic predisposition. While it is true that professional athletes are likely to have 10,000 hours of sports participation, these hours are more likely related to various sports rather than a single sport related to their professional careers. The majority of those hours were also not found within the spans of childhood or adolescence.
The development of children in sports is also positively affected by “deliberate free play,” which is defined as activities that are enjoyable and motivating in and of themselves. This is the opposite of what happens in children who engage in early specialization, which is termed “deliberate practice,” aimed at improving performance and skill, not necessarily enjoyment. Creativity, emotional ability and motor skills are better improved through deliberate free play rather than through deliberate practice. The latter increases time spent with a coach, whereas “deliberate free play” is associated with increased time spent playing sports.
The recommendation is for young athletes not to participate in just one sport year in and year out. The accumulation of hours is important, but it should be focused on general sports participation. Time spent on sports should be mostly on “deliberate free play,” which should comprise more than 50 percent of the total hours spent on sports.
The problem with having too many options that tax the bodies of young athletes arises when some sports start offering out-of-season programs. The most promising athletes are the ones who are chosen to participate in these programs.
Elite performance in sports is actually associated with:
- “Deliberate free play” other than the chosen sport, 80% of the time, prior to age 12.
- A 50/50 split in the chosen sport and other sports from age 13 to 15.
- The presence of “deliberate free play” and non-specialized athletics at least 20 percent of the time from age 16 and on.
The likelihood that any child athlete will become a professional superstar is quite minuscule. The more likely outcome of early sport specialization is the exact opposite — non-participation in adulthood and decreased interest in sports competition in general. It’s important to back off of young athletes when they are training too frequently or too much. It’s ultimately up to the adults to recognize the symptoms of burnout and stress in these athletes.
The media is rife with stories of celebrity athletes and how they started playing hockey at 4 years old or swinging a tennis racket as soon as they learned to walk. Many parents, frustrated perhaps by their own shortcomings as young athletes, believe that by making their children focus on one sport, the child will succeed where they failed.
The science is quite clear about the importance of multiple-sport involvement and “deliberate free play” for children and adolescents. For the vast majority of young athletes, these are the approaches that help them succeed not only in sports, but also in life.
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Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sport specialization, part I: Does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes? Sport Health Multidisc App, 2015; 7:437-442.