Youth Sports Specialization Not Only Unnecessary, But Harmful To Development

Should kids specialize in one sport?

That is a question that nearly every parent who has a child involved in sports has had to ponder. As a former three-sport athlete and as someone who has covered athletics for over half his life, my answer has always been, “no,” based on my personal feelings. But now studies are also showing that specialization for young kids is not a good idea.
A recent article on the “Changing The Game Project” website, titled “Is It Wise To Specialize?” cites several sources that say specialization at a young age can be detrimental to kids.
Here are some notes from that article:
• Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50 percent of overuse injuries in young athletes, and were 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured;
• Children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity;
• Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment;
• A 2013 study found that 88 percent of college athletes participated in more than one sport as a child.
There is an early study that says that student-athletes who want to play at a high level in a certain sport need to log 10,000 hours prior to age 20, but not all of these hours need to be logged in that sport. For example, a 2003 study of pro hockey players noted that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only about 3,000 hours were logged in hockey-specific practice (and only about 450 of those hours prior to age 12).
So what does that say about how we prepare athletes?
First off, let kids play whatever, not just one sport. This article recommends that no more than 20 percent of time should be spent on a chosen sport prior to age 12. Even after age 16, 20 percent of training time should be spent on other activities.
Second, remember that there are many times more academic scholarships than athletic ones. Encourage your children to be active, but encourage them to be good students as well as good athletes. Doors open up for individuals who have intelligence in the classroom, as well as the leadership and perseverence taught in athletics.
One final note — a person who works with athletes commented on the original shared post, saying he was working with a couple of girls who had never learned to skip, in part because they were pushed into so many structured activities. If someone goes through childhood without learning to skip or play all those little playground games, what kind of childhood is that?


One athlete who didn’t specialize in high school was Wagner and University of South Dakota standout Mandy Koupal. Koupal, now an assistant coach for Ryun Williams at Colorado State University, was recently featured in an article on the NFHS webite.


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