First, I want to say that I truly believe most youth sports parents and coaches have their hearts in the right places.
However, the growing trend of having our young athletes specialize in a single sport -- some as early as 9 years old -- flies in the face of scientific research and expert testimony.
If your goal as a parent is to maximize your child's athletic talents in a particular sport by the late teens or early 20s, then multi-sport participation -- at least through age 16 -- is clearly the way to go.
Now, on the other hand, if your goal is to have your child be the best 12-year-old player in a given sport possible, to make the top traveling team, and achieve "all-star" status before he or she reaches the teen years, then by all means sport specialization is the way to go.
Specialization works -- but only in the short term.
If the long view is your focus when it comes to your kid's athletic performance, then you certainly don't want your child specializing in one sport -- no matter what your kid's seemingly well-meaning coaches and trainers might say. (The possible exception would be a sport like girls gymnastics where athletic performance often peaks in the mid-teens.)
Here's a snippet of some of the evidence against specialization:
A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences last year looked directly at the youth sports specialization issue. The study found that young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one sport at the ages of 11, 13, and 15.
In another study, from 2012, also published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport.
The reason multi-sport athletes, over time, become better athletes in their ultimate sport of choice, according to lead study author, Job Franzen, is that boys participating in more than one sport are exposed to a greater number of physical, cognitive, affective, and psycho-social environments than boys participating in one sport only.
According to Franzen, multi-sport athletes possess a broad range of physical, personal, and mental skills that help them to be successful when they start specializing in a single sport later in adolescence.
Most college coaches understand this. They prefer recruiting multi-sport athletes because they have an upside, are better all around athletes, are not done developing, and are less likely to burnout.
"These guys (multi-sport athletes) have a high level of athleticism but probably haven't peaked yet as lacrosse players," says Chris Bates, head lacrosse coach at Princeton. "Once they get to college, they will specialize and will develop and blossom. They usually have a steep growth curve, whereas some of the kids who have been single-sport athletes tend to burn out quicker. Oftentimes, they don't have as much left in the tank."
Fred Bowen, who writes a column on youth sports for the Washington Post, believes passionate parents and coaches aren't always the most knowledgeable and rational when it comes to youth sports.
"I think you can see overbearing adults in all the youth sports issues today," says Bowen. "For example, let's take specialization, playing only one sport at a young age. I had the privilege of interviewing Cal Ripken one time and I asked him when was the first time he played baseball year-round. He told me, 'When I signed a professional contract at 18.'"
"I point out to parents that Ripken was an all-state soccer player in high school. Ripken was a big man for a shortstop but he could really move his feet. Soccer helped him with his footwork. San Francisco 49'ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was not only a standout football player in high school; he was also an excellent basketball player. But people who saw him a lot in high school said his best sport was probably baseball."
Michael Sokolove, author of Warrior Girls, says:
"We all need to think more deeply about the insanity of our youth sports culture, with its focus on early specialization in one sport, and, especially its seasons without end. There's an assumption that specialization makes kids better at their sport, that it promotes mastery. But it doesn't. Every expert will tell you that it absolutely doesn't."
There are many documented dangers to early specialization, including emotional and physical burnout and an increased risk of overuse injuries. Yet, adults, parents and coaches, continue to pursue specialization for young athletes. The reason? A belief that specialization will lead to improved athletic performance. But that's clearly not the case in the big picture. Specialization limits a young athlete's long-term performance in a given sport relative to his/her multi-sport peers.
Single sport specialization by young athletes is a growing trend that must be reversed.
It's time we all start spreading the word.
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