According to new research published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, specializing in a sport at a young age does not seem to be related to future success in that sport at an elite level, and can even be harmful, leading to more injuries.
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It happens with parents all the time. They sign little Everett up for kids’ soccer, and he’s good. Really good. So they put him in soccer summer camps, goalkeeper clinics, and spend every weekend lugging coolers and lawn chairs to his soccer games all over the state. They start daydreaming about college scholarships and professional contracts and how he might even become the next Christian Pulisic. Good thing they discovered his perfect sport so young, right?
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Maybe not. According to new research published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, specializing in a sport at a young age does not seem to be related to future success in that sport at an elite level, and can even be harmful, leading to more injuries. Those required 10,000 hours of practice don’t apply to most sports, except for the ones where athletes compete at the Olympic level young, like rhythmic gymnastics and figure skating. For kids, it’s better to try different sports and activities, or just run around and play whatever comes to mind. (Remember when all the neighborhood children just knocked on each other’s doors and gathered to play tag in the field? Me neither, but let’s bring that back.)
Overtraining Can Lead to More Injuries
Repeating the same movements over and over, like pitching a baseball, can put stress on the ligaments, muscles, tendons and growth plates. Kids’ bodies are not the same as adult bodies, and those who specialize in a sport have the additional risk of sustaining overuse injuries, according to the data. For example, in a study of 546 teenage female athletes who played basketball, soccer or volleyball, there was an increased rate of anterior knee pain in those who had specialized in the individual sports at an early age than those who played a variety of sports.
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Specialization Can Lead to Burnout
The pressure for kids to be “committed” to one sport is causing emotional burnout. That leads to them quitting the sport, and once they quit, they rarely return. About 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by age 13. It’s too much pressure.
The Best Athletes Played a Variety of Sports When They Were Young
In the study, which surveyed 3039 athletes at the high school level and beyond, only 22% of professional athletes said they would want their own child to specialize in one sport during childhood and adolescence. Most pro athletes played two or more sports at a young age, especially high school—check out the massive Wikipedia list. Participating in multiple sports builds up different muscles, and can help players become better all-around athletes. Several college football coaches even say they seek out multi-sport athletes on the recruiting trail.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against single-sport specialization, and instead recommend that parents:
Delay sports specialization until at least age 15 or 16.
Encourage their kids to participate in multiple sports.
Discuss sports goals with their pediatrician to see if they are appropriate and realistic.
Take time off from the sport if they do decide to specialize. They should take a break from their sport at least three months during the year, in increments of one month. They can still be active in other ways, of course.
Take one to two days off from their sport per week to decrease chances of injury.