It’s not as common today to see a group of kids playing basketball or baseball for fun as it was 20 years ago. Now more and more kids and parents choose sport specialization and play only one sport competitively all year. They start specializing in that sport earlier than ever.
Unfortunately, this early sport specialization might not be best for kids. After all, 70% of kids stop playing organized sports by age 13. Is this specialization at least partly to blame?
The rationale parents and coaches use to push early sport specialization is simple. By training in only one sport, the child might develop his or her skills in that sport more quickly. The young athlete might, in theory, be more likely to reach elite status.
It’s worth pointing out that only 1% of high school athletes play in college on an athletic scholarship. 0.5% or less play professional sports. For the small percentage of athletes for whom intense training might help, the vast majority will not see those benefits.
A new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics questions whether kids should be pushed to pick one sport and train intensely in that sport. Here are four reasons early sport specialization and intense training in sports might be a bad idea.
The young athlete might not achieve future sports success.
Studies have shown that Division I college athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports in high school and actually have played different sports than the current ones. 87% of athletes at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine played multiple high school sports. Playing a variety of sports until the late high school years might actually increase the chances of advancing athletically.
The young athlete might miss out on the benefits of sports diversification.
Playing different sports at a young age allows a child to learn basic movements and physical skills in a variety of activities that will transfer to the primary sport when he or she finishes growing. Plus, it allows the child to grow emotionally and socially with other kids in a positive environment. As the child matures, he or she will have the physical and emotional strength to take on intense training in one sport.
The young athlete might experience social drawbacks from sport specialization.
Kids who spend too much time training intensely in one sport can develop strained relationships with their families, feelings of loss of control in their lives, and even a sense of isolation from their friends.
The young athlete might be more likely to suffer injuries.
Overuse injuries often result from too much training without enough time to rest. Up to half of all injuries in youth sports are thought to result from overuse. One study has shown an increased risk of injury with kids training more than 16 hours per week. Another showed an increased risk with more hours of training per week than the age of the kids (more than 12 hours per week for a 12-year-old, for example). A third study showed an increased risk for kids whose ratio of intense sports training to free play time was greater than 2:1.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the specific factors that make the small number of superstars great. If your child wants to play sports for a long time, it seems smart to let him or her try a lot of different sports for fun, see what they like, and decide to play only one sport in high school or later.
Brenner JS and AAP COUNCIL ON SPORTS MEDICINE AND FITNESS. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3):e20162148