Often the first question I’m asked when meeting other parents for the first time is “At what age did you start playing softball?” I’ve never been one provoke talk about my own career, but in regard to specialization, it’s clear why many parents ask.
It’s also why I’ve decided to sit down and finally put my thoughts on paper, hoping that my own experience might change the momentum of a misguided movement.
So many things have changed over the years in the way kids, and especially parents, approach sports. Nothing has gained so much momentum as “Early Specialization," the practice of forcing kids as young as six or seven to focus on one sport alone. As a parent of three young children, my eyes are quickly being opened up to a whole new world of cutthroat, youth sports, and the pressure to choose a sporting career early in childhood.
The days of the all-around athlete lettering in three sports in high school have been replaced with parents and coaches pushing young children to be “one-sport-wonders.”
As I navigate through my kid's elementary schools, I am hyper-aware of this growing phenomenon, knowing that there will be a time when a coach is going to tell me and my child to pick only one sport. And within the context of that pending ultimatum, I can’t help but look back on my own childhood, and wonder just how we came to this thinking.
Enough About You
Long before I was a mother, 2-Time Olympian, Professional Fastpitch player, and an All-American college pitcher, I was just another active little girl growing up in the small town of 7000 people tucked away in the mountains of British Columbia Canada. All we had to do was play.
Long before high school and softball, I was tumbling around in gymnastics, running track, playing tennis, uncontrollably bombing downing ski slopes, and even curling like a good little Canuck. (That’s the sport you watch in the winter Olympics and either tell your friend its not actually a sport or “You and I could totally medal in that.”)
When high school finally came around I began to “focus” on what I enjoyed without the prompting of neither parent nor coach. For me, that was basketball, volleyball, and softball. It wasn’t until I left for college that I picked softball as my only sport.
Without anything close to early specialization I managed to become a Division 1 1st Team All-American and 2-Time Olympian for my country…all in the sport I didn’t even start until I was 11. Read that again…all in the sport I didn’t start until I was 11!
But I’m just one of many from Trail. My brother, Jason, was the 2004 MLB Rookie Of the Year and a 3-time Major League All-Star and no less than Nineteen others played in the NHL, while two more competed in multiple Olympics in the decathlon and pentathlon. All from a little town in the mountains where every kid played every sport growing up. And I know because my brother and I played with or competed against many of them early on, most of the time in sports none of us would eventually play professionally.
And while it’s difficult to hide my pride, I didn’t begin writing this to brag about my home town or the athletes it’s produced. I’m only writing now as a concerned parent, and one who is going to stand up and ask one simple question to those telling me that our kids need to specialize.
My mind is just boggled by the fact that this is commonplace despite the fact that the negative effects are well documented and easy to find. Here is your primer:
- The likelihood of injuries goes up exponentially. Overuse injuries are increasing at an alarming rate for children. In a specific study out of Loyola University they found athletes that specialized were 70+% more likely to be injured than their peers that played multiple sports.
- A correlation has developed between early specialization with inactivity in adults. The study “Early Sport Specialization, does it lead to long term problems” by AM Mostafavifar, MD out of Ohio State University took an in-depth look into this issue. Those kids who have adopted early specialization would be more likely to suffer from burnout, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
- As a mother of an active little girl, I cannot turn a blind eye to the evidence that young adolescent girls who specialize have a much greater risk for anterior knee pain disorders which leads to higher rates of future ACL tears.
- It can interfere with healthy childhood development. Isolating children with too much practice time and saddling them with a parent’s high expectations, can stunt social, emotional and personal growth.
So if the downside of specialization wasn’t made clear and your kid’s club coach won’t leave you alone, let’s look at some of the positive effects that kids experience playing multiple sports and engaging in more free play.
- They have better overall skills and abilities. Research shows overall motor development leads to longer careers, increased motivation, confidence and an ability to transfer sports skills between each sport.
- They develop into smarter and more creative kids, which leads to better decision-making.
- Free play means more play and children who are free to “play” tend to spend more time engaged in a sport, than those athletes with intense structured practice.
- Most college athletes come from a multi-sport background: In 2013 the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine found that 88% of college athletes that were surveyed participated in more than one sport growing up.
We’ve all heard the horror stories. Ten-year-olds having to choose a specific sport, an 11- year old with rotator cuff problems from too many pitches, children going in for ACL surgery at 12, 13 and 14 years old. Has anyone stopped to ask how our young athletes have gotten themselves into this predicament?
How many friends did you have in middle school that tore ACLs? I know my answer. I’ll go with zero.
If there is this load of evidence against specializing our kids, why are coaches still pushing it?
Club sports are big business and sports entrepreneurs and coaches depend on the income from coaching teams and clinics. It stands to reason that they need kids playing for them year-round to generate year-round business and justify the astronomical costs.
This hadn’t dawned on me until reading a great paper by Jay Coakley, but it makes complete sense. There are other reasons I suspect. Perhaps it’s parent's misguided focus on instant gratification.
We used to think sports taught life lessons that made us better people down the road. Now everyone wants the best 7-year-old soccer player. The questions go on and on and on…
In Part II I’ll touch on how I am fighting this battle in my own family and the plan of attack we are taking with our own kids.