Question: Should your Young Child Specialize in One Sport?

The greatest difference between today’s young athlete and my own experience as a young athlete is that I played the sport of the season from football to basketball to baseball. A 2008 survey by the National Council of Youth Sports found that one in four of the 60 million children surveyed, ages 6 to 18, who participated in an organized sport took part in a single sport. This was unheard of in my time.

At the age of five I took my oldest son Bradley for his first karate lesson. As the months passed by my son enjoyed his lessons and was one of the best students in the class. It was at this point I started to work with him at home. I became his personal trainer and as the years went by he won several championships. Why did I do this? I thought his excellence in one sport would improve his self-image. It also gave us hours of bonding together. I am sure there was also a selfish reason I did it.

When parents are told of the negative results of their young child specializing in one sport, they respond that for their child to make a traveling or varsity team their child must train year-round in their one sport. Parents are simply following the advice often given to them by their child’s coach. Many times these coaches run summer programs and want the child to enroll.

I never considered the possible negative effects of my son specializing year-round in one sport. For parents who are encouraging their young child to specialize year- round in one sport these are some of the possible perils their child may face.

The following research findings show how early specialization may have a negative impact on your child.

  • According to orthopedic specialists, children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injury in young athletes.
  • A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized in one sport led to a higher rate of adult physical inactivity.
  • In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Jayanthi of Loyola University found that young children specializing in a single sport were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
  • Children who specialize early have a greater risk for burnout due to stress and lack of enjoyment.
  • Early sports specialization for young females may lead to an increased risk of all sorts of anterior knee problems.

To avoid the above problems brought about by specialization why not take the multi-sport alternative until a child reaches a certain age where specialization may be necessary. The following research findings show the advantages of the multi-sport option for young children.

  • Research shows that multi-sport participation leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, and the ability to transfer important skills from other sports to their favored sport.
  • Multi-sport participation at the younger ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity.
  • A 2013 survey showed that 88% of college athletes participated in more than one sport as a child.
  • Early specialization takes away from the child their free-play time. Studies show free-play for a young children increase their motor skills, their emotional ability, and their creativity.

Top sports researchers Jean Cole and Jessica Thomas suggest:

  • Prior to age 12, 80% of the time should be spent in free-play.
  • Between the ages 13-15, split the time evenly between a chosen sport and other athletic pursuits.
  • At 16+ even though specialization becomes very important, at least 20% of the time should be in free-play or in a non-specialized sport.

Parents, I am interested in what you think about young children specializing in one sport.

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