Do Kids Who Specialize Early Lose Later in Life?

Little league player standing on side getting ready to play

Little league player standing on side getting ready to play (Ken Chernus via Getty Images)

So it’s early morning, and I am sitting in a hotel breakfast area enjoying the spoils of a continental breakfast (although with some food options I would question on which continent they would be considered breakfast…) As I am morosely digging into my self-serve waffles, my ears perked up as they caught wind of a news story on a nearby television. The waffles would have to wait…

I cannot remember the news station covering the story (and to be honest it doesn’t really matter) but I became vested in the report because it discussed the material that is covered in the Introduction to Sports Administration class offered in the Fall and Winter semesters. The report was concerned with a recent article published in the Huffington Post written by Jennifer Breheny Wallace that simply stated that kids who specialize early on with sports, lose later on in life.

After watching and listening to the report, (then returning to my waffles) I began thinking about this issue a little more. I went online to view the article in its entirety and then do further research on what other researchers think about the topic.

But why is this even an issue?

According to a well-known study by Dr. K. Andres Ericsson, in order for a person to achieve expertise in a sport or activity, he/she must invest approximately ten years or 10,000 hours of practice. As such, we’re seeing sport specialization rationalized as a way to become better athletes and build better teams. So realistically, do you think some of the worlds best athletes like Peyton Manning and Christiano Ronaldo played anything other than their respective sports growing up?

Some experts state that early sport specialization can, however, lead to a variety of issues for the athlete, including:

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
  2. A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
  5. Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.

So why should kids have multi-sport experiences? Experts make the following case:

  1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
  2. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
  3. Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
  4. There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

This argument raises a lot of questions. If you are interested in finding out more visit http://changingthegameproject.com/

What do you think?

Is specialization in sport at such an early age detrimental to development?

Is there an alternative solution?

Most sports require a large amount of the week’s schedule, how can parents find time to include another sport? How can low-income families afford to get their child involved in another sport?

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