When I think back on my experience as a kid playing sports, there were pickup games, the start of lifelong friendships, and wins and losses (of course), but mainly I remember how much fun I had. Watching my kids now — and talking to my friends and the other team parents — I’m blown away by how different things are for our children; they have been directed to hyper-focus their skills on a single sport and are under a ton of pressure to succeed. And it seems like the pressure just keeps growing. But does focusing on one sport, to the exclusion of everything else (including fun), really make an impact? And is that impact positive enough to outweigh the negatives?
Highlight reel: Overuse injuries are a growing concern with the increase in sports specialization. By encouraging sports sampling and meaningful periods of rest, parents and coaches can help keep our kids happy, healthy, and in the game.
The reality is that more kids are focusing more intensely on a single sport at a younger age and look to athletes like Cori “Coco” Gauff, the 15-Year-Old Wimbledon rising star, as affirmation that this is the right path for every young athlete. But there is a misconception that specializing in one sport is a pathway to greatness. According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, seven out of ten Olympic athletes surveyed by the United States Olympic Committee said they grew up as multi-sport athletes. And most called the experiences valuable to their development.
We’ve discussed the pros and cons of early sports specialization— from current age success to burnout — and touched a bit on what many see as the biggest hazard facing kids who specialize in a sport at a young age: overuse injury. Learn why intense training in a single sport at the exclusion of others should be delayed until high school to optimize success while minimizing the risk of injury.
EVEN WORSE THAN BURNING OUT: WEARING OUT
What exactly is an overuse injury? It’s when an athlete practices the same motions day in and day out all year round without getting the chance to heal or rest. Overuse injuries can sneak up on an athlete since they happen gradually, developing over time. In many cases, once an injury occurs the risk for re-injury is higher. And as injuries add up, the motivation to participate in organized sports drops.
By engaging in a variety of sports and activities, kids will develop different muscle groups and give others a much-needed rest. There are physical demands in all sports and the body simply needs a break. A healthy body that is well-rested is the perfect blueprint for achieving long-term health and practical skill development. It’s about finding the right balance; keeping kids happy and active, and playing sports without running the risk of burnout and injury.
“Ensuring that your child plays only one sport and one team in each season, varies each sport season by season, and takes at least one season off from formal, organized sports has been shown to keep kids healthier and happier,” says Jennifer J. Beck, M.D., Director of Outreach and Research, Center for Sports Medicine, Orthopedic Institute for Children/UCLA.
As parents and coaches, we should introduce our children to several sports both in a formal and informal manner. Pickup games allow young athletes to use their imaginations and make up their own rules. Also, they are building self-esteem and a lifelong love of physical activities.
We want young athletes to understand that choices are available and that they should feel free to explore different sports types on their own terms.
SAMPLING IS HEALTHY & PUTS THE FUN BACK INTO SPORTS
Regular physical activity is important for kids for many reasons. From building motor skills, developing a positive self-image, and strengthening social interactions, to attaining higher levels of physical activity and improved overall mental health, sports sampling can help keep our child athletes out of the doctor’s office and in the game.
A young athlete playing a wide variety of sports is truly a great joy to see: the physical, social, and psychological benefits are extraordinary. Most importantly, it’s fun and provides a lifetime of cherished memories!
Learn more. inCourage creates evidence-based video learning and other educational resources and shares them, for FREE, with anyone who wants to participate in improving the culture of youth sports and keep more kids in the game.