Early sport specialization.
It’s a term you almost never heard 15 or 20 years ago. Nowadays, even my grandma knows what it means to “specialize early.”
For those not in the loop, the National Strength and Conditioning Association defines early sport specialization as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age.”
Much has been written about the potential detriments of early sport specialization. The anecdotal and empirical evidence that playing multiple sports throughout childhood makes for healthier, happier, more athletic, more well-adjusted kids is mounting.
This increased awareness regarding the potential drawbacks of early specialization has led to a shift where kids who likely would’ve specialized five or 10 years ago are now being encouraged to compete in multiple sports.
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. Countless articles have been dedicated to the benefit of competing in multiple sports, and they make compelling arguments.
However, this push for a return to the multi-sport youth athlete has spawned a new phenomenon I find troubling.
Before travel teams took over youth sports, each sport was generally confined to three or four monts. Football was played in fall. Basketball was played in winter. Baseball was mainly a summer sport.
But over the years, these lines became blurred. Spring became a time for 7-on-7 football. Fall baseball grew in popularity. AAU basketball extended hoops season well into the summer. Eventually, if you wanted to play or train for a given sport at any time of the year, you could find an opportunity to do so.
The popularization of this model correlated with the rise of early sport specialization.
As we see kids return to playing multiple sports, it’s often being influenced by this modern model—and not for the better.
Instead of making our kids play one sport year-round, they are playing multiple sports year-round, causing overuse, burnout and potentially higher injury rates.
Instead of kids playing baseball in the summer, football in the fall and hockey in the winter, I’m now seeing kids playing baseball, football and hockey 365 days a year.
We’re now allowing kids to explore and experience a higher number of sports, which can definitely be beneficial, but we’re also overloading them with two to three times the volume than if we’d just let them stick to the one sport!
This can lead young athletes to become chronically injured, perpetually exhausted and at significantly higher risk of burnout.
There’s not much data on this trend, but if I had to guess, having kids play multiple organized sports 365 days a year is far worse from a physical performance and load management perspective than simply playing one organized sport year-round. We are taking rest out of the equation in our kids’ development.
Yes, kids love sports. Yes, many skills do carry over from one sport to the next, and there’s something to be said for learning how to win in different environments. Yes, sports are good and teach life lessons and provide an outlet for kids to express themselves.
But once again, too much of a good thing is not necessarily better.
Having your son or daughter go from baseball practice one night to hockey the next and then straight to basketball is not “giving their arm a break from throwing.”
Think of it like working more than one job. For those of you who are or who ever have done this, you know it’s exhausting. You finish a 6-hour shift at the office, then you rush over to work another shift somewhere else. By the time you get to your second gig, you’re already fried. It doesn’t matter that you were doing a different job before. Fatigue is fatigue, and you’re not fresh.
Now you see what our kids are going through.
Playing more than one sport can confer amazing benefits for youngsters. But playing several sports simultaneously with no break is arguably even worse than early specialization. A huge benefit of playing multiple sports is you give your body a break from certain repetitive movements or actions associated with particular sports. But when you just pile sports on top of one another, you only make things worse.
So please, let’s keep the conversation about our kids’ long-term development going. The idea behind having kids compete in multiple sports comes from the right place. However, we can’t disregard basic physiological principles in the process.
Parents want to have their cake and eat it too by having their kids be “multi-sport athletes,” but ones who never miss a potential game, practice or training session for any sport in the process. It just doesn’t work that way.
Seventy percent of kids drop out of youth sports by the time they are 13 years old. That is a scary stat, and one I’d desperately like to improve.
Put some rest into the equation and let’s watch our kids’ development and enjoyment soar!
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