Years ago, it was the norm for young athletes to test their skills at different sports according to the season. Football and soccer were played in the fall, basketball during the winter, and baseball in the spring. But with the number of indoor facilities and year-round leagues on the rise, specialization of youth sports is becoming an increasingly popular practice.
Today, millions of parents are hoping to prepare their children for athletic scholarships. Specialization in one specific sport at an early age may seem like the fast track to athletic success.
Focusing solely on one sport develops skills and coordination that are necessary to succeed in that specific sport. The child spends more time practicing, conditioning, and playing. Professional athletes such as Tiger Woods (who began playing golf at age 3) act as examples of the success that can be had by starting young.
Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
By specializing too young, athletes are putting themselves at risk for a large list of negative consequences.
At the top of that list are the physical overuse issues and chronic injuries. The repetitive movements of a single sport can cause muscle imbalances and tightness, leading to decreased performance. Chronic injuries such as tennis elbow, stress fractures, and ACL injuries become increasingly common.
Beginning to specialize early also contributes to emotional and psychological factors. Young athletes often put immense pressure on themselves to succeed. Specializing puts all of that pressure into one specific activity and may cause devastation and psychological burnout when they fail. Young athletes may begin to feel a loss of control over their own lives, with serious repercussions including depression, chronic fatigue, and eating disorders (Balyi, Way & Higgs).
Does specializing increase the odds of college scholarships?
The Huffington Post found that college coaches actually prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes. Young athletes who start out playing multiple sports tend to be highly athletic and still haven’t peaked. Most players who specialized in their youth are already reaching their burnout phase.
A study performed in 2008 administered surveys to 71 NCAA Division I-AA and Division I program athletes. Of the participants, 24% did not start playing sports until they were between 9-12+ years old, proving that you don’t need to start at age 3 to be successful. The average number of sports played prior to high school was 4, with 83% of participants playing at least 3. Only 2.8% specialized.
The ideal approach is to specialize at an older age, which often results in higher performance levels than those who specialize while younger. Players are less likely to experience burn out; their movement patterns and decision-making skills are better because they are involved in a range of activities that challenge their cognitive and physical functions; And they still have the opportunity to specialize in college to develop one sport to the fullest.
“The more sports youth practice at young ages, the greater ease they feel when eventually selecting one sport that suits their mental makeup and body composition. If they choose to specialize, they will know the sport in which they will excel.” – Balyi, Way & Higgs
Becoming wrapped up in the goal of college athletic scholarships has distracted many of us from what is truly important in youth sports. Encourage children to try different activities, teach them teamwork, and watch them have fun.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below!
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