By Jason Riddell MS, SCCC, CSCS, USAW
Director of Athlete Performance
I can’t tell you how many times in my career I have had a parent of a child between 7th and 11th grade come to me and ask “Is my child going to get a college enter-your-sport-of-choice scholarship?” The parent then proceeds to tell me their child plays club, travel and on their school team along with private skill lessons. My short answer is usually, “It’s really too soon to tell.“
But, when I do get the chance to speak with a receptive parent at length, I share the real concerns and facts about specializing early:
• Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.
• 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.
• In a study of 1,200 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!
• Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
• Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP (Patello Femoral Pain), Osgood-Schlatter and Sinding-Larsen-Johansson Syndrome compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.
6 Research-Based Reasons For Multi-Sport Participation
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4,000), field hockey (4,000) and wrestling (6,000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one: deliberate practice. That, he says, is wrong.
• Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researchers found that activities that are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment are incredibly important. These are termed “deliberate play” (as opposed to deliberate practice, which are activities motivated by the goal of performance enhancement and not enjoyment). Deliberate play increases motor skills, emotional ability, and creativity. Children allowed deliberate play also tend to spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes in structured training with a coach.
• 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 3,000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).
Here at Next Level Fitness & Performance our two main objectives for our youth athletes are to reduce the chance of injury and increase the athleticism that will afford them the opportunity to excel at sports. When always encourage our athletes to try as many sports and skills as possible in order to give them the greatest chance of success in their future athletic endeavors.
Sources for this article include:
- Butler, Chris: Is Early Sport Specialization a Risk Factor for Anterior Knee Pain in Female Athletes?
- De Lench, Brooke, “Early Sports Specialization: Does it Lead to Long Term Problems?” www.momsteam.com
- Farrey, Tom, “Early Positive Experiences: What is Age Appropriate?” Roundtable Summary from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society “Project Play” Initiative
- Sagas, Michael, “What Does the Science Say About Athletic Development in Children?” University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative www.changingthegameproject.com