Sport Specialization in Kids

Everyone wants their kid to be the next Lebron James, Tiger Woods, or Peyton Manning, but with the way AAU and traveling athletic leagues have evolved in the last decade, at what cost is this happening? Just like with everything else moderation is key. If you have too much of something or do too much of something, you end up getting to a breaking point mentally or physically. I have seen this directly at the level I have worked at and have seen it with people very close to me as well. The drive of the kids and sometimes more often, the parents to “make it” is creating these very extreme situations. The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine conducted a study that found kids who specialized in one sport were 2x as likely to sustain a lower extremity injury as compared to kids who played multiple sports. Additionally, these same kids who specialize were also found to have sustained a new lower extremity injury in 60% of the cases. So, what is sport specialization?

Sport specialization is intense training in one sport while excluding others. When this occurs in early to middle childhood, which is becoming more and more popular, the outcomes for these athletes are very poor. Many arguments for this are that the kids will get left behind or passed up by other kids who are only focusing on one sport throughout the year. So, in fear of getting overlooked, these kids are training year-round in one sport. This has been ridiculed by physicians, orthopedics, physical therapists, athletic trainers and more because of the poor outcomes this has shown. In many cases parents think that because you have to practice and train to improve, that there is no ceiling here and that more volume has to occur for long term success.

Decades ago kids got in youth sports to be active, do something they enjoy, interact with other kids their age and learn the many quality lessons that athletics can teach us. As a kid I remember constantly being outside and playing whatever kind of games I could with my buddies. We would constantly go down to the local public park and play pick-up games of soccer for hours upon hours, because we loved it. If we weren’t doing that, we were riding our bikes down to the other local park and waited to be picked up for basketball on the black top. That is the beauty of playing, we do it because it is fun. As these competitive travel leagues become more and more common, and these parents try to develop their kids early on we run into a few main problems I want to highlight in this article. The first point is when you play a sport, you are subjected to those demands and your body will respond accordingly, like it is supposed to. But when you participate in that sport for 10, 11 or 12 months out of the year, you are constantly exposed to those same demands, those same structures in your body being stressed and overtime they will begin to fatigue and breakdown. That is when we start to see many of these lower body injuries start to occur. When we keep having the same stresses placed upon us, the same tissues having to sustain these demands, we are asking for trouble. Years ago, athletic seasons wouldn’t last 12 months. You would play a fall sport, take a week off, go to your winter sport, take a week or two off and then play a spring sport. Many different movements, many different stresses on the body, but not constantly on the same parts of the body. Once the summer rolled around you took some time off and then began to prepare for the fall again. But now it is more like you play your sport, the season ends, and you move on to your traveling team to play with them until your school season starts up again, it is a very scary cycle.

On top of the physical worry of this, the mental aspect is just as worrisome. You have these young kids being herded around, expected to perform at high levels all the time, expected to continually to improve, and it doesn’t become fun anymore. The organization and stress they have from external sources can erode their love of the game. They can become burnt out or uninterested very quickly because at this point, they are not doing it for themselves anymore. They are playing to make their parents happy, their coaches happy and to make them the player they “NEED” to be. Sounds pretty sad that this is being done to young kids, right?

Kids need to have fun, be free and learn. Sports are a great way to do that, but we cannot keep sabotaging these kids’ future by having them training like world champions at age 10. If they display some abnormal amounts of talent in a sport, awesome! Have them continue that sport, supplement it with other sports they enjoy too. Keep things fresh and fun with these young people, they will respond so much better mentally, and their bodies will thank them down the road as well. The final point that needs to be said is, if they are ready to begin in the weight room, depending on their age and maturity level, then get them in there! Focusing on areas that they struggle with, or perceived weaknesses can make them more confident, less injury prone, and develop a level of confidence from the feeling of getting stronger. If you have any questions about this, or want to learn more, let me know and always remember to #HealByMoving.

Todd SabolComment