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Early Sports Specialization for Children Does Not Guarantee Results

In my practice I see 12-year-old AAA hockey players with chronic injuries, most often related to muscle imbalances and weakness. These cases further emphasize the idea that children at young ages should be working on developing as many movement experiences as possible.
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The research evidence supporting the importance of physical activity for children continues to grow in the scientific community. As a result of this, we have an increase in mainstream media articles related to youth and sport. Often, when this happens, articles and experts appear from everywhere, citing conflicting results and a confusing picture is presented to parents.

As a parent of three young children, with a "mild obsession" about their health, I find myself thinking about their daily amount of physical activity. I am fighting a constant battle with the TV and computer to find interesting ways to keep everyone moving. I face similar questions by other parents. It usually starts with, "How much activity is enough?", "What are the best sports to have my children in?" "How much computer or TV time is appropriate?"

The current structure of many sports organizations may increase parents anxiety, and can result in problems due to sports specialization too soon. For example, if you look at most hockey organizations in Canada, certain children are chosen at ages five and six to enter a competitive stream. This competitive team requires the players to commit to more practice time along with games and tournaments.

From a purely physical evaluation, this system is good, because the children are getting much more opportunity to exercise. For an overall athletic development goal, current research indicates that early specialization can lead to problems later on.

Sometimes the product of this specialization system is a child who develops into a skilled player, but does not have great functional movement ability. In other words, they are not reaching their full athletic potential. I end up seeing many of these players at our clinic, as 12-year-old AAA hockey players with chronic injuries related to muscle imbalances and functional weakness.

These cases further emphasize the idea that children at young ages should be working on developing as many movement experiences as possible. Over the past decade I have worked with several high level athletes and coaches and they all support the idea that the best athletes will be developed from multi-sport experiences that begin at a young age.

Scientific research on Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), most of it developed by Istvan Balyi, has illustrated another very valuable piece of the puzzle when we are looking at how elite athletes are trained. Balyi, has determined that there are optimal 'training windows' that occur for all children. For example, most children will experience their speed window between the ages of six and eight for girls and the ages of seven and nine for boys. This is the time when their bodies, brains and neurological systems are most receptive and adaptive to speed training.

As a coach this means that these ages should be working on speed development within their skills. If you were training a golfer at this age you would not be spending the majority of your time training accuracy, instead you would be working on trying to hit things as far and as fast as possible. This training helps the child access those areas of the brain that focus on speed development.

Once this window is finished, or if an athlete misses this type of training, they may not be as fast as they could have been if they had worked on the appropriate style of training at the right time. Most children will naturally want to work on these skills at the appropriate ages and our current structure of organized sport often does not encourage these behaviours.

What does this mean for coaches and parents? The opportunity to develop these essential movement skills is important for all children, whether they decide they want to be an Olympian or a weekend skier. It involves commitment to a variety of sports, or simply making time available for daily free active play. This will allow each child to be the best "mover" they can be as an adult.

In our increasingly sedentary society, we need to develop skills outside of work and every day activities that keep us active. For most of us, this will involve being comfortable with recreational activities. We learn the skills to be proficient at activity when we are young. A healthy child that loves activity will most likely grow into a healthy adult that loves activity. A sedentary child with most likely grow into a sedentary adult.

This does not mean that children should have no specialized training at early ages. For some sports, such as gymnastics, this is essential for them to be competitive. Most qualified coaches at competitive levels will be aware of these training windows and using them appropriately. USA hockey has adopted this philosophy with a program called, the American Development Model (ADM). This video explains how they use these same principles in practice with their young players:

Parents, coaches and anyone working with children should be focused on what is best for the 'whole' child at that moment in time and not just focused on their skill in a particular sport. If children are enjoying their activities you will have a hard time getting them to stop. This is a good sign! Listen to your children and let them tell you how they would like to play and be active, then provide them with a variety of daily opportunities to experience these skills. The research shows, you will be doing the right thing.

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