The Truth About Sports Specialization

How many young kids are there that dream of becoming a professional athlete? Growing up I know I did and so did a lot of my friends. Soon enough you realize that’s probably not possible, but maybe you could still earn a scholarship to college or be a standout athlete in high school. These goals are much more attainable and when a young kid shows they have talent for sports we try to guide them to maximize their talent. That is the natural way to help out these young people. What tends to happen next however, isn’t as helpful. These kids are told, “if you want to be the best basketball player possible, you need to strictly focus on basketball”. Substitute any sport you want, but consistently what happens is we encourage these kids to pick one sport and specialize.

First, let’s consider some of the pros of specializing. This definitely helps kids to develop specific skills like shooting a basketball or pitching a baseball. They also will have more time to practice and compete in these kinds of sports. If you only have to worry about baseball, there is a lot more time to spend working on those skills. However, we don’t always think about the potential downsides of spending more time on one sport.

If you focus on only one sport you are at higher risk for overuse injuries from repeating the same motions over and over again. One example of this would be pitching a baseball. Most of us have heard of Tommy John surgery and some may have heard about how this is becoming more and more common in young athletes. One study found that this injury is increasing by 9% each year in 15-19-year-olds. The repeated stress of movements like this can lead to injuries and thus hurt young athletes’ chances of becoming a great high school or college athlete.

Another area that tends to get overlooked is the psychological burnout of playing just one sport. When you spend so much time doing just one activity you can grow tired of it. Spending multiple days of the week at soccer practice and then on the weekend playing for your travel team can take up almost all of your free time. You might miss hanging out with friends, birthday parties, or even just having time to sleep in and relax. Kids need to want to play their sport and they should be the one making the choice to go to these practices and games. One of the keys to success is truly loving the sport you play and enjoying time at games and practices.

Now let’s talk a bit about why playing multiple sports is so good for young kids. Each sport is unique. It requires you to move in different ways and accomplish different tasks. The rules, teammates, coaches, and fields are all different as well. This variety helps athletes to learn how to work in different settings and how to be successful in all kinds of ways. Soccer focuses a lot on cutting and shuffling side to side. These kinds of movements are extremely similar and beneficial to other sports like basketball or tennis. A baseball player may need to focus on throwing the ball, but they also would benefit from sports focusing on speed, shuffling side to side, or developing hip strength. The truth is our bodies need to be able to move in all kinds of ways to be most successful in sports and one of the best way to develop these different movements is to expose yourself to them by playing.

Now some kids just don’t want to play anything besides their favorite sport and that’s okay too. We can’t force kids to do something they don’t want to and should encourage them to find other kinds of training to help them. In this case I will recommend that these athletes get involved in a strength and conditioning program. This will allow them to focus on muscle groups that aren’t being addressed in their regular sports. They will be able to work on their weaknesses and even further develop their strengths. Starting a regular training program is really something every young athlete should be doing.

Another area we should address is free play. Kids need to have time to just running around without any specific rules or structure. Growing up we used to play games like capture the flag, manhunt, freeze tag, and a bunch of other games. Doing things like this is really important to developing as an athlete. This gives young kids the chance to be creative, move in a variety of ways, and learn to think outside the box without rules or boundaries. This is one reason why we always encourage kids to spend time playing with friends and having fun making up their own games.

If you find yourself wondering if you child is playing too much of one sport there is a great simple rule that can help you figure this out. It’s called the rule of age. Basically, you shouldn’t play more hours of one sport per week than you are years old. For example, a 12-year-old shouldn’t be playing hockey more than 12 hours a week. As you get older and mature more your body is better able to tolerate the repetition of a given sport. However, this rule does cap at 16 years old so no matter if you’re 16 or 18- the max number of hours you should play a sport each week is 16 hours.

Sports are a great way for kids to learn teamwork, leadership, and develop physical fitness. If your child is good at a sport and enjoys playing it that is also great! However, this doesn’t mean they should drop all other sports to focus on just one. As we have talked about, this can be detrimental to their risk for injury and overall motivation to keep playing. One NCAA survey found that 88% of division 1 athletes played more than one sport in high school. The best way to help young athletes to be successful is keep them healthy and motivated to be the best than can be. Encourage kids to spend time just having fun without structure and to play all different sports they enjoy.

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