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Why Early Sports Specialization is Harming Our Kids

Danielle Dent-Breen's picture
Youth sports

There has been a trend lately of college programs offering scholarships to younger and younger kids. The Charlotte Observer ran an article today documenting the story of two young boys, aged 9 and 10 years, who have both been offered college football scholarships this month. These boys are committing to a program a decade from now, but at what cost? At nine years old, is it possible for a child to make a decision about his future? Because he has not yet even hit puberty, how can anyone say with certainty that he will even have the physical size and strength to play at the college level? And what is the cost to this child in specializing so young in one single sport?


What’s going on with youth sports?
It used to be, kids spent their early years playing recreational sports for their city parks department. Their season consisted of several weeks of practice and about 8-10 games per season. Oh, but times have changed. Over the last ten or fifteen years, youth sports has seen explosive growth, at seemingly ever-earlier ages, of the number of highly selective, highly competitive sports teams. These so-called elite, travel, select, premier and Olympic development teams demand early specialization, resulting in kids playing a single sport on a year-round basis to the exclusion of all others.

This pressure for early specialization seems to be driven, in large part, by parents who see competitive elite teams as an advantage, that will somehow give their child an edge--or at least to allow them to keep up--when he or she is competing for college scholarships. Many parents and coaches have bought into the idea that “more is better”, and push their children to extremes with practice, training, and competitive games, thinking that they will be unable to attain success without “putting in the hours”. Malcom Gladwell, in his best-selling book, “The Outliers”, promotes a theory that claims that a child needs to put in 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” in order to become an expert, and many parents and coaches have taken this to heart for their six and seven year-old children.

Still other parents feel that playing on a travel or elite team is necessary from the earliest years in order to allow their children to remain competitive. They fear that without early exposure to elite level play, and without early specialization, their child will fall behind and never catch up.

The research just doesn’t support these ideas. In fact, one study published in 2012 by the Journal of Sports Sciences found that boys 10-12 years of age who played multiple sports, especially may hours per week, are more physically fit in the areas of explosive strength, speed and agility, and cardiovascular endurance, and had better gross motor coordination than those boys who specialized in only one sport.

What the experts say about why early sports specialization is harming our kids
Tom Brady, Quarterback for the New England Patriots and five-time Super Bowl Champion, spoke candidly in a radio interview with Boston sports radio station WEEI:

“What I remember from being in youth sports, everything was really localized. There [were] no travel teams. Well, there was a couple, but you really had to be the top, top kid to go on those teams. My parents always exposed us to different things, different sports. It was basketball when it was basketball season, it was baseball when it was baseball season. I didn’t play football ’til I was a freshman in high school. A lot of soccer. And there were just some camps. But I just played in the neighborhood in our street with all the kids that we grew up with.

“It’s just different now, experiencing it with my own kids; all the organized activities that you put them in. I made a comment for a while now, I hope my kids are late bloomers in whatever they do because they’re going to be exposed to so much at such an early time that, yeah, you do worry about what their motivation may be as they get older or if they feel like they’ve been in something for so long and it’s been hyper-intense and hyper-focused for so long, I think that can wear out a young individual, a young teenager. It’s just hard, because all the parents are doing it, it seems. The competition, it feels like it starts so early for these kids, whether it’s to get into college, or to get into the right high school, or the right elementary school.

“I don’t know how it’s taken a turn, but sometimes it’s nice just for kids to be kids. At least that’s just from what I remember when I was growing up. I think that was a great opportunity for the kids to develop lots of parts of their personality. And certainly for me that’s what I found; ultimately I found something that I loved to do at a young age. The more you’re exposed to, I think the better opportunity is for all kids to figure out what they really want to do in life.”

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Tom is onto something. As a matter of fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a statement calling for no specialization in sports training until at least the age of 15-16 years old, if at all. They have further called for a ban on national rankings and scholarship offerings until the late high school years, well after the onset of puberty. The AAP instead favors exposure in many different sports, with a focus on the long-term needs of children through enjoying various activities and play.

The hard truth is, early sports specialization is simply not necessary or beneficial for most young athletes. Chasing after college scholarships by playing elite level sports is unnecessary, and the statistics show that specialization is not preferred. A full 70% of children participating in youth sports drop out by their 13th birthday. Only 1% of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships to play in college, and only 0.03-0.5% ever make it pro. In fact, Division 1 NCAA athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports when they were kids. Studies continue to show that for the majority of sports, early diversification and late specialization are what actually lead to elite status.

Risks of early sports specialization
Children who specialize in one sport early on are more likely to suffer from physical, emotional and mental problems related to their sports participation. Overuse injuries are becoming frighteningly common in younger and younger children. Orthopedic surgeons are beginning to speak of an epidemic of Tommy John surgery on kids as young as 12 years old. In fact, it is estimated that somewhere between 46%-50% of all youth sports athletic injuries, across the board, are related to over-training and over-use.

Children who train >16 hours per week, according to the AAP are at increased risk of injury. Burnout, anxiety, depression, and attrition are greatly increased in early specializers. As well, the AAP points out that children who devote huge amounts of time to one sport, and one team alone are at risk of social isolation from their peers who do not participate in their same sport.

Lack of a full skill set
Kids who specialize too soon in only one sport fail to fully engage and develop the nervous and muscular systems in ways that teach the body to adapt to a wide variety of skill sets. This can often lead to injury. By developing only one set of athletic skills, kids are missing out on true overall athletic development. Building overall athleticism over a wide variety of sports activities is a far better predictor of single-sport success later in life.

Let kids be kids
The best thing parents can do for their kids is to allow them to fully experience childhood. Running, swimming, bike riding, kickball, tree climbing, driveway hoops, and just playing outside is without a doubt more beneficial for children in building athleticism and allowing them to transition to competitive sports in their teen years. Kids should play and enjoy a variety of sports and play activities, which will benefit them not only on the field but also in the classroom.

What can parents do?
As much as possible, parents should discourage specialization in a single sport until their child is at least 15-16 years old, and encourage participation in a variety of organized sports activities throughout the year. Reduce the risk of sports injuries by buying the right equipment. Encourage your child to take at least 3 months off from any one sport in a year. This can be broken up into 1 month segments. The National Athletic Trainers Association has issued a position paper further calling for a minimum of 1 to 2 days off each week from competitive practices, competitions, and sport-specific training.

Parents should monitor training and coaching of their child, especially those who are involved in “elite” youth sports programs, to ensure coaching staff are adhering to these recommendations.

According to Joel Brenner, MD, the lead author of the AAP report and past chair of the AAP Council of Sports Medicine and Fitness, “The ultimate goal of sports is for kids to have fun and learn lifelong physical activity skills. We want kids to have more time for deliberate play, where they can just go out and play with their friends and have fun.”