Early Specialization in Youth Sports

Okay parents and coaches, this post might ruffle a few feathers, but obviously I feel this topic is important, or I wouldn’t post it. I’m not claiming I have all the right answers but having a young family myself I find this topic very interesting. Even if you disagree with the following, it is always good to listen to an opinion outside of our own confirmation biases.

Is making your child take 100 shots, throwing 100 pitches a day helpful? Are you travelling hours and hours to attend the best clinics, or playing in the biggest showcase tournaments all year around, in hopes of your child ‘making it’… is this commitment or insanity? Is this good for young athletes, is this good for the parent/child relationship? When is it appropriate to specialize?

What is early specialization?

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines early specialization as intense training in a single sport along with the exclusion of other sports for at least eight months of the year.

Why is early specialization growing in popularity?

Parents wanting their child to have every opportunity of success is part of it. Perhaps, keeping up with the Jones’ is a piece if the puzzle, hearing and seeing what other families are signing up for will provoke some level of anxiety that your child or family will fall behind in development (social media likely increases this anxiety). The mindset being that early specialization will give the child a better chance at playing at the ‘next level’.

Early specialization and organized sports

As organized sports increase so does early specialization. So if organized sports are on the rise, along with things such as homework from school, the odd part-time job, and now the social media and gaming dilemma, what critical activities suffer? Free play and sleep. You do not have to squint very hard to envision how important free play and sleep are at any age, but especially for growing children. A meta-analysis done in 2018 concluded young highly specialized athletes were almost twice as likely to get injured than non-specialized athletes.

Potential issues with specializing early

  • mental burnout

  • increased risk of injury

  • cost in dollars

  • love of the sport lost

What is mental burnout?

Psychological burnout can be defined as sports-related exhaustion or persistent fatigue from overtaxing physical and mental demand. Sports-related cynicism such as indifferent or distant attitude towards the sport, along with emotional distancing. Having a feeling of inadequacy, a perception and anxiety of not performing as well as the individual used to perform.

The sport of choice doesn’t seem to matter

Most of us have witnessed great young athletes all but out of a sport, or with diminished skills by late teens. Young ‘superstars’ fall at risk to overexposure. The focus/pressure of winning can lead parents and coaches to overusing the ‘superstars’, creating more physical and mental stress on them. Approximately half of youth athletes suffer from overuse injuries, running sports are near 70%. However it’s not necessarily the sport they partake in, but the amount of exposure to the sport. Barbell sports like weightlifting and powerlifting are no exception.

Unfortunately a broader issue with youth sports is prevalent!

The correlation of early specialization and the environmental pressure of ‘winning’ seems to be high. Thus the emphasis of a child’s support group being all about winning rather than skill development increases the likelihood of suffering burnout. The Long Term Athletic Development Model popularized by Ford et al in 2011, strongly suggests an emphasis on teaching training and technique/skills over competition in the development of youth. This reduces the chance the organization or club becoming consumed by wins and losses.

When is specializing helpful?

Unfortunately specialization tends to start around 9-13 years old. Imagine a education system that stops a child from learning math and reading to solely focus on science, this sounds absurd. Grooming a general athlete should likely be the first goal at this age.

From the literature I’ve read, waiting until ages 16, 17, or 18 depending on the sport seems to be acceptable ages. Even then, cutting out other sports likely is not the best strategy going forward.

We just want the best for our kids

Look, I get the program! I’m a coach of youth teams and the burning itch to ‘win’ is absolutely present. However, wins and loses are a result driven mindset, where as skill development, preparation and the building of confidence is a process driven mindset. Winning makes the coach look good, it doesn’t necessarily benefit the entire team. It’s more important to develop skills on and off the ice/field/court than to have the best team.

Conclusion

Excluding a few high profile athletes who specialized early, it seems that most of the population would benefit more from generalization. The trend of specializing our young children appears to be leading to poorer health both physically and mentally…due to overexposure and the pressure of performance. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for kids to learn how to work hard, train hard, be coachable and competitive, but like everything else there is a tipping point. And the other side of that tipping point is not a place I want my kids to experience.


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