While sports can provide a multitude of emotional and physical benefits for kids, specializing in a single sport at too early of an age can pose risks. How do you know when—or if— your child should specialize in a sport they love?
What is Sports Specialization?
Brian Harvey, O.D., a pediatric sports medicine physician, says that sports speciali-zation is defined as playing and competing in one single sport exclusively for more than eight months out of the year.
Advantages of Multi-Sport Athletes
Some parents worry that their children won’t have a competitive advantage later on if they don’t specialize early.
Karen Hughey, co-founder and CEO of Team Cura, works with scholarship-seeking athletes and their parents. As a former sports parent, Hughey says both her children played a variety of sports. She and her husband left it up to their children to decide which ones they wanted to pursue as they got older.
Although he was a talented golfer, her son Rob, co-founder of Team Cura, opted to quit golf early in his high school career to participate in other activities. But, by his junior year, he decided that he wanted to return to golf and play at the college level.
“He had to work harder to reach out to college coaches at that point, but he still was fine,” Hughey says. “He found a great school and a great fit for himself. So, leave it up to your kids. They’ll find their way and figure it out.”
From discussions with many high school and college coaches, Hughey has found that they tend to prefer recruiting multi-sport athletes.
“I think football is probably the best example of not specializing,” Harvey says. “Ninety percent of the first-round draft picks are multi-sports athletes. They’re running track, playing basketball, wrestling. It certainly doesn’t hinder their ability to play professionally or get those college scholarships.”
“We see that kids, who have had experiences playing a multitude of sports, have fewer difficulties learning new skills and, generally, don’t suffer from the overuse injuries and burnout that are common with youth athletes specializing in one sport,” says physical therapist Tim Cummings, PT, DPT.
An overuse injury occurs as a result of repetitive motion and impact on one area of the body.
“Overuse injuries are those injuries that cause an athlete to lose more than a month of their sport,” Harvey says. “Those are the biggest ones that we see in the developing athletes who do sports specialization.”
Cummings says the most common overuse injuries he sees in younger patients include ankle sprains, knee pain, Little Leaguer’s Elbow, ACL tears and Osgood-Schlatter.
“Osgood-Schlatter is a traction injury on a special type of growth plate called an apophysis, which is at the top of the shin bone,” Cummings explains. “The traction comes from strong and relatively tight muscles that develop during puberty and high activity levels. Pain and sometimes swelling can be felt directly over a bump at the bottom of the knee.”
Participating in different sports throughout the year is easier on developing bodies and kids are less likely to get bored or even anxious or depressed.
“Athletes wanting to perform at their best, but not being able to, whether it’s due to injury or their fear of disappointing a coach or a parent or even themselves, plus that chronic daily physical demand, can lead to higher rates of burnout and quitting their sport,” Harvey says.
To allow the body time to rest and recover, kids shouldn’t train for more than eight months out of the year.
“And really try not to practice, train or compete more than their age in years per week,” Harvey says. (For example, no more than 12 hours per week for a 12-year-old.)
Striking a healthy balance between sports and other interests is also beneficial.
“Some of the high school athletes we work with have stressed the importance of needing down time and being able to spend time with friends,” Hughey says.
Encourage Free Play
Whether they toss a football around with friends, shoot hoops in the driveway, play tag, or make up competitive games, kids develop motor skills, creativity and social/emotional skills through unstructured play.
“When we start to look at young athletes, the body really needs time to develop, to learn how to run, learn how to jump—really learn how to use their bodies and play,” Harvey says. “Instead of focusing on one exact sport, try a little bit of different types of sports. Learn how to be athletic first and foremost, and then really have fun with those sports.”
When To Specialize
“This isn’t a black and white, good or bad issue. Sports like figure skating, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnas-tics and diving require early specialization due to the high demand to acquire specific sports skills early on,” Cummings says. “Peak performance in these sports most often happens before reaching full physical maturity.”
But, he emphasizes that early specialization combined with decreased recovery time does put an athlete at increased risk for overuse injuries no matter the sport chosen.
Harvey recommends parents gauge specialization readiness according to a child’s physical and mental maturity. Although he’d prefer kids waited until they were at least 12 (ideally 14 or 15), “there’s probably not a specific age that I would say is perfect,” he says.
He says a child who is physically and mentally ready to specialize:
• Is goal-oriented
• Understands that the sport should be fun
• Comprehends complex rules of the game
• Recognizes the demand that a sport can put on the mind and the body
• Can cope with those demands in a healthy way
Above all, “you’ve got to listen to your children,” Hughey says.
“Countless coaches have told us that you will know when the time is right. If you’re pushing it, it’s not the right time.”
Christa Melnyk Hines is a nationally published freelance writer. She and her husband are the parents of two active sons.