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Early Sport Specialization- Just say No

We are seeing more and more in our society early sport specialization in younger and younger kids. To clarify, sport specialization is the focus of a single sport- playing no other sports year round. Early sport specialization is the focus of only 1 sport in kids 12 years of age and under. Sport specialization can start as early as age 7 when travelling teams start though in some cases such as gymnastics you may see 5 years of age specializing.

Age 7! Let me just tell you, my career choices changed 5 times between 7 and college! No kid or parent should be making the choice to only focus on 1 sport at that age! But in fact, despite what it may seem, there is little to no benefit of early sport specialization when compared to the risks that come with it.

  1. Burnout: 47% athletes wanted to quit by age 14 (age of sport specialization 8.1 years) along with undue stress, lack of socialization with peers from other sports,

  2. Injury: various studies show a range of 70-85% increased injury rates in kids who specialize in a single sport compared to those that play multiple sports

  3. Underdeveloped athleticism: focusing on 1 sport too early may improve the kid's skill at that sport but reduces their overall athleticism that they may develop in using other planes of movement, other muscles and other critical thinking skills found in different sports as well as developing strong neuromuscular control

  4. Cost: the cost of travelling, private lessons, tournaments, club teams etc equates to 11% of US families total expenditure (2015) with only housing being a higher category

We must stop and ask ourselves the question, why are we pushing our kid to specialize in only 1 sport? Is it THEIR love for it or OURS? Do we want a professional athlete or Olympian? Do we just want them to make the high school team or play in college?

If our reasons are for playing in high school and beyond, then the answer is still not early specialization!

Just look at some of these stats:

91% of NFL 1st round draft picks played multiple sports

15% of the NBA 1st round picks played multiple sports but those who did, while fewer, had longer, healthier careers.

2% of HS athletes get sports scholarships to play for NCAA school

Only 17% of college athletes specialized by age 12. 45% played multi-sports. 55% specialized after age 12.

So is there a magic age?

It seems that, while even still you don't have to specialize at any age until the collegiate level, age 14 shows to not significantly increase any risk factors. There still remains the "10,000 hour rule" which states you have not mastered a skill until you have practiced for 10,000 hours. This is partially where early sports specialization came from. However when looking at stats of kids who specialized at age 12 and those who specialized at age 14, the 14 year-olds put in significantly more practice from age 14-21 than those who specialized before or at age 12.

Bottom line: It is not how early you start specializing but rather how many hours you put into intense training once you are safely old enough to do so. The more diversification a youth athlete can be exposed to the more versatile of a player they will be until they begin to specialize and they will have a stronger base to build from.

(Side note: gymnastics seemed to be an outlier in the majority of stats indicating success with specialization at early ages- likely due to peak age being much younger than other sports)

So how do we keep our kids safe? The following our guidelines agreed upon in most professional organizations involving youth sports and youth athletes.

Guidelines for youth sports:

  1. Youth should play no more than 8-9 months a year (Take 3-4 months off but they do not have to be consecutive)

  2. Athletes should have at least 2 rest days a week

  3. Athletes should not play in multiple leagues at the same time (indoor soccer and outdoor soccer) or (baseball and football)

  4. Youth should keep hours of participation in organized sports to their equivalent age. (A ten year old should not participate in more than 10 hours of organized sports per week)

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