New campaigns challenge early sports specialization
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Four national sports organizations in Canada recently joined forces with the Canadian Olympic Committee in a campaign to encourage young people to play various sports in lieu of only one.
In the U.S., the OneSport media campaign to help prevent overuse injuries in young athletes was kicked off this spring by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM).
Both initiatives reflect a growing pushback against the trend of early sports specialization that’s involving increasingly younger children.
Sports specialization in youth is characterized by engagement in a sport for at least eight months a year at the exclusion of other sports, and early sports specialization occurs in children under the age of 12.
The practice is largely motivated by the idea that dedication to a single sport will give the promising young athlete an edge in rising to an elite status, getting a college scholarship and/or going pro.
To counter this misguided practice, the Canadian initiative drives home three key points: 88 percent of collegiate players come from a multisport background, specializing too early increases a child’s risk of injury and finally it leads to burnout. Likewise, the OneSport campaign was launched to educate parents, coaches and young people about the dangers associated with sport specialization including overuse injuries caused by repetitive movements and stress factors that often lead to quitting sports.
Is early sport specialization necessary to attain elite status?
For those with eyes on a professional athletic career, with the possible exception of certain artistic sports such as gymnastics and figure skating where early development of complex movement skills is advantageous, specializing early is unnecessary and even counterproductive.
Consider statistics like this one from the National Scouting Report that 30 out of the 32 first round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft were multisport athletes in high school.
For the majority of sports, experts agree that early diversification or the exploration of a wide spectrum of athletic disciplines is beneficial not only physically and psychologically but it increases the probability of eventually playing at an elite level.
"The literature is out on the effects of specialization on young athletes’ body and it is not supportive," comments Erik Kimrey, 14-season head football coach at Hammond High School in South Carolina. "Different sports require the use of different muscles and multi-sport athletes develop a broader core of strength that will serve them better in each individual sport and provide a superior resistance to injury."
Why is early sport specialization still growing?
Despite evidence from research and expert advice from the medical field and the top tiers the professional athletic community, not to mention professional athletes and concerned coaches like Erik Kimrey — there’s no sign that the rate of youth athletic specialization is slowing down.
The authors of "Best Practice for Youth Sports" comment that the push for exclusive specialization in the U.S. — where athletes discontinue all other sports and extracurricular activities to train and compete year-round in one sport — is depriving young athletes of the benefits of cross-training and off-season rest.
"This is often mandated by coaches who, for some unfathomable reason, have the power to cut athletes from their programs unless the athletes agree to quit all other sports and most activities," they write and include the example of a high school soccer coach who required perfect attendance at a summer-long conditioning program and wouldn’t allow participants to go on week-long family vacations.
Parents commenting on a website affiliated with the multisport initiative noted that while organizations on the national level are pushing for multisport involvement, what they’re seeing at the local level is the opposite.
The mother of a 7-year-old baseball player shares that he’s required to play or practice five days a week or be released from the organization. While she and her son are in agreement about his participation in other sports, they’re left no time for other activities.
Parents pushing their children into sport specialization is another powerful influence and the subject of research led by Dr. Charles A. Popkin, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.
A survey of 201 parents showed that 57.2 percent had aspirations for their children to play collegiately or professionally. One-third of respondents shared that their children played a single sport and 53.2 had a favorite sport but participated marginally in others while a mere 13.4 percent stated that their children balanced multiple sports equally.
"Culturally, we have found that parents have unrealistic expectations for their children to play collegiately or professionally and as a result, they invest in private lessons, trainers or personal coaches to help their kids," explains Dr. Popkin. "When you're investing this amount of time and resources, there can be unwritten, indirect pressure from parents to specialize."
How can risk of injury be reduced?
Findings from the above research also indicated a higher incidence of injury in the young athletes who had outside skill development through private lessons, linked by the researchers to the additional hours of playing and training.
Similarly, the degree of specialization makes a difference in injury risk level. This was clearly illustrated in the results of a comprehensive study of more than 1,500 high school athletes involved in varied sports activities that was conducted in 2016 out of the University of Wisconsin.
"Our results demonstrated that athletes who classified themselves as moderately specialized had a 50% higher incidence of lower extremity injuries and athletes who had a high specialization classification had an 85% higher incidence of LEI," said lead researcher Dr. Timothy A. McGuine.
To mitigate risks, members of the pediatric community recommend that time should be split 50/50 between a young person’s chosen sport and other athletic pursuits until the age of 15. Even when specialization becomes important after the age of 16, other sports should make up 20 percent of a young athlete’s training time.
Of course, the ages given are generalizations as each individual matures at a distinct rate. In addition, some athletes prefer resting during offseasons rather than being active in another sport.
What could be worse than getting injured?
In addition to injury, both campaigns name burnout as a primary risk associated with early sports specialization. This, in Kimrey’s opinion, is the greatest threat in sport specializing and something he has witnessed firsthand numerous times.
Striving to achieve elite status while young usually means sacrificing time with friends and other age appropriate experiences that build social skills and create emotional balance in a child’s life. Add to this undue pressure to win, to achieve and to meet the lofty expectations of coaches or parents.
Coach Kimrey fears that young athletes may lose the sense of amateurism or playing for the love of the game when their parents pay for them to play on travel ball teams and hire specialized coaches. He wonders if the game becomes more like a job or routine task.
"When a child plays a sport year round I think they forfeit quite a lot. Think of all the other sporting teams they’ve missed, whether it’s representing their school or community. I just see no reason for a young person to risk losing those experiences."
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