The Rise of Specialization in Youth Sports
(Part 2 of 2)
Now what about the risks of early specialization? I will address this in three areas: injury risk, emotional/mental concerns, and social behavior. Injury risk is perhaps the area getting the most attention as of late, with esteemed doctors and medical journals reporting a variety of medical risks associated with early specialization. A simple Google search will lead you to nearly 200,000 articles correlating specialization with a dramatic rise in youth sports injuries. The aforementioned American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) led by Dr. John DiFiori has taken a strong position on this topic, as have numerous other organizations. The AMSSM focuses on what it calls “overuse injuries”, noting that estimates in 2014 placed the range of overuse injuries to acute injuries at 45.9% — 54%(10). Though the AMSSM is careful to point out that a direct relationship has not been confirmed, they note a variety of risk factors and cite a very real concern about overuse injuries being caused by early specialization and intense training. Plenty of their colleagues agree.
If you think about it, this makes quite a bit of sense. Our children’s bodies are developing constantly from birth and take on major changes during adolescence. If a child participates in a diverse set of sports and activities, he or she is working a variety of different muscles, joints and bones. This type of diverse physical activity has been shown to be quite healthy for children; its one of the reasons why sports are such a great activity and why we have physical education in our schools. However, if a child plays only one sport and does so intensely several days each week, then he or she is repeatedly working the same muscles, joints and bones in high frequency.
What medical research is beginning to show is that our children’s bodies simply aren’t ready for that type of repetition before they are developed to a certain point.
Two recent examples come to mind on this topic: injuries of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in teenage girls, and elbow or shoulder injuries in boys playing baseball.
Studies have demonstrated that female athletes are already anywhere from 2–10 times as likely to tear their ACL than male counterparts(11), and early specialization seems to come with an increased risk of wear and tear on those ligaments from sports where cutting and pivoting are common (i.e. volleyball, basketball, soccer, etc). Some doctors have gone so far as to decry this an epidemic(12). The same research indicated that young athletes who specialized were as much as 70% — 93% more likely to be injured. On the male side, one can look to America’s pastime for evidence of overuse injury. A 2013 study out of the University of Louisville made a direct correlation between elbow injuries in young male athletes and overuse, citing the “frequency and intensity” of repeated throwing motions prior to “skeletal maturity” as the reason for these injuries(13). The study focused on baseball but was quick to point out that it could be true of any sport that involves young boys throwing an object repeatedly.
It’s interesting to note that none of these studies seem to correlate injury epidemics to merely participating in a traditional sports season. Certainly injuries can occur in all sports, but these studies cite words like intense, frequent and exclusive use at a young age, which sounds like the definition of specializing in a particular sport.
The sad truth is that our society is working our young athletes to the point of injury, which can be attributed directly to early specialization.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has released a statement addressing this issue and makes recommendations to parents and coaches to counter the concerns. While addressing similar injury research to that noted here, NASPEs states that “involving oneself across a range of sports — with breaks and needed recuperative time between sport seasons — is the most effective way to enhance long-term health and skill development, as well as to enable young people to meet the physical demands of competitive sport.(14)” We have to let children mature before their bodies are ready to handle the stress of specialization
The risks go beyond physical injury. Concerns about the mental and emotional toll on specialized athletes are becoming more prevalent. Sports psychologists, long employed in professional and college athletics, have joined with child psychologists to study the effects of youth sports participation on children. Their studies have ranged from long-term affects on personality and cognitive development to simply understanding what impact competitive sports participation has on children at different ages. As it pertains to early specialization, the concerns center around unhealthy amounts of stress and burnout.
Stress is something that most adults are used to dealing with at this point. We balance our lives between a healthy amount of stress, which keeps us going, and too much stress, which leaves us in poor health. We all realize that children shouldn’t be dealing with stress, yet those who specialize are clearly demonstrating high levels of mentally stressful activity. Some of this stress simply comes from the amount of time they spend with the particular activity — if a child is constantly either in school, at practice or doing homework, the child will feel stress because he or she has little time to decompress from constant work. Family pressures can also contribute to this stress. Well meaning parents spend hours volunteering and coaching to provide children these opportunities, but their expectations are simply different than the child. According to a well traveled article by Dr. Lenny Wiersma way back in the year 2000,
“sport is often organized around the values and expectations of adults, which are quite different from those of children. While adults value the achievement outcomes of specialized sport participation, children do not place the same importance on external rewards, nor is it likely that these outcomes are enough for a child to choose involvement in a sport at the relative costs involved, such as moving long distances and leaving family to train with a particular coach.(15)”
It’s also worth noting that if the actual financial cost of participation is a burden on the family, the child may feel responsibility for that as well. Most families certainly don’t intend to add stress to their child’s life or consider this when deciding to specialize. Sports are fun! Yet the reality is that the practice of early specialization has been shown to create unhealthy levels of stress that can have detrimental long-term affects.
Perhaps the most discussed of these effects is burnout among youth athletes. Simply put, burnout comes when the child ceases to participate in an activity or sports all-together because they are mentally and physically exhausted. In a recent guest post with the NCAA Sports Science Institute, psychologist Keith A. Kaufman defined this as follows: “What leads to burnout is too much training stress coupled with too little recovery. Training stress can come from a variety of sources on and off the field, such as physical, travel, time, academic or social demands.(16)” Anyone who has participated in our local CYO programs is familiar with the burnout statistics I share with coaches and parents, courtesy the Play Like a Champion Today program at the University of Notre Dame. Their survey of youth sports demonstrates that at least 70% of children will drop out of sports all-together by the age of 13(17), a statistic that is trending upward according to recent statistics. Experts say that burnout is becoming a much more significant issue at the high school and college levels and attribute this to early specialization. Even the NCAA has gotten involved, with Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline, M.D. addressing the issue of youth sports and creating a Mental Health Task Force to address the needs of athletes coming into the college level. Even if a specialized athlete makes it to the highest level, he or she is simply exhausted. There have been many examples of student-athletes who simply get to college and quit their sport. What’s more, the affect of burnout isn’t simply the end of one’s athletic career. Long-term effects have been shown to include depression, lower levels of extrinsic motivation, and higher rates of adult inactivity (leading to further health issues). The same stress that causes burnout can also lead to limitations in a child’s maturation and behavioral development.
The final risk to mention is centered on social factors. While there is less research on this area than the previous risks associated with early specialization, there is convincing evidence that specialization is a detriment to a child’s social behavior and development. T.W. Rowland wrote nearly two decades ago that “the hours of intense training might interfere with normal social relationships, development of self-concept, and educational opportunities.(18)” Others have noted “social isolation(19)” and also the reality that for these athletes, social contact “is largely limited to the athletes who train together, and the interactions that occur in high-level sport during training are minimal.(20)” This all adds to concerns about specialized athletes growing up with a narrow identity and without the social development of a child participating in a more diverse set of activities. In affect, specializing can actually take away some of the social characteristics of youth sport considered most beneficial to children.
So if there’s no benefit to early specialization and significant risks involved, why are so many families having their children specialize at a young age? Furthermore, what can we do about this trend? Let’s examine the first question for a moment before determining how we can address this concern.
I believe the answer behind why so many people choose to specialize lies with two factors: money and pressure.
Youth sports are big business and there are millions of dollars put into recruiting kids to high level teams each year.
Teams are run by programs that benefit from major sponsorships by the likes of Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and so on. It pays to participate in as many tournaments and events as possible, which provide exposure and helps to recruit more talented kids and more sponsors. In fact, many of the same companies that sponsor organizations and teams (helping provide equipment and cover costs) also run tournaments all over the country. Thus the cycle of year-round demand for specialization. These major companies have proven pretty savvy when it comes to selling their products, which is an expertise they have utilized to market youth sports as well. We’re being sold by some of the best marketers in the world.
In addition, for even well-meaning coaches and program leaders, the club programs where specialization occurs are clearly businesses and must be run accordingly. To maximize business requires playing frequently and winning games, which we know places additional demands on the time of everyone involved. The most prestigious programs are very successful at all of this and others follow suit. In a way, it’s the new American dream, achieving individual and team success on a national level. It should come as no surprise then, that few of the major players in the youth sports industry are speaking out about the potential dangers of early specialization, since it’s simply working too well from a business perspective. There’s no incentive to slow down when the machine is running so smoothly.
That’s where the pressure comes in. No matter how much money is changing hands at the highest level, in order for a team to form it requires parents to make a decision that this path is best for their child. When so many sources are telling you that early specialization is a requirement to your child’s future athletic success, good parents are bound to listen. There’s pressure from retailers, pressure from programs, and pressure from other parents. The sad truth is, many good parents are trying hard to justify the money and time they are committing to the activity. I recently had a parent of some young children approach me and express that he has been getting interest from club programs about one of his young children.
New to the area, he wondered if there was any truth to what these parents and coaches were saying: that the only chance his child had to earn a roster spot at one of our local Catholic high schools was to join a particular team and begin to specialize in that sport.
This family is many years from high school, but already being pressured into thinking they must consider their child’s athletic future if they want their child to “succeed” as a teenager.
The irony in all of this are the two groups perhaps most opposed to early specialization: high school and college coaches. These are coaches at the top amateur levels nationwide, who serve as ambassadors for a sport from neighborhoods to international competition. They simply don’t like the direction things are taking, for the kids and for their sport. The reasons for this can be self-serving of course, kids who have not specialized when they arrive in high school and college are better all-around athletes and don’t suffer from injury or burnout. Yet those seem like pretty good reasons. High school coaches lament kids who have been taught a single way of doing something (sometimes the wrong way) and resist the teaching environment of high school programs. They express concern about programs that place so much emphasis on winning that kids don’t know how to learn new skills once they’ve grown into a new teenage body. College coaches have long decried the challenges of recruiting kids whose bodies are broken down and who are mentally exhausted. Last summer, more than one major college coach I spoke with made it clear to me that their best athletes — and certainly best leaders — played multiple sports all the way through high school. Knowing where I work now, both sets of coaches have asked me on many occasions to warn parents against early specialization and encourage involvement in a diverse set of sports and activities from a young age.
I have often discussed with these same individuals how we go about addressing the culture of early specialization. How do we fix this? While I’ve received more than one pessimistic answer lamenting the big money involved, most believe the key involves educating families and helping parents to make more informed decisions for their children when it comes to youth sports. This goes back to a point made earlier in this piece: it all comes down to a decision. No matter the pressure or sales pitch involved, if parents understand the risks of early specialization and see the benefits of participating in multiple sports, they’ll do what’s best for their children. In doing so, they’ll turn to organizations that support a positive, multi-sport approach and steer clear of the programs pressuring them to commit to specializing. Further, if kids understand the risks and benefits, they are more than capable of being involved in the decision as well. While the allure of joining a “special” team can be intoxicating, more often than not its the kids who have the right priorities when it comes to sports. They would rather spend time in different activities, play with a diverse set of friends, and avoid the injuries and exhaustion that come from specializing.
Practically speaking, the guidelines put forth by NASPE suggests that in addition to encouraging kids under 15 to play multiple sports and find out what they enjoy, participation in a single sport should not last longer than 3 months at a time(21). I support this assessment. They also promote seeking out coaches who have their priorities in order: coaches who understand that it’s not about high school rosters or college scholarships, it’s about learning and growing in virtue and skill during the current season. Seek out coaches who encourage kids to not only fall in love with their current sport, but to seek out other sports/activities to find out what you truly enjoy. A coach with the right priorities isn’t going to ask your child to give up other activities they enjoy at a young age, no matter how talented he or she may be. Finally, look for coaches and teams that emphasize the aspect of play. Not play in terms of the frequency of practices and games necessarily — a common pitch for specialization — but true, deliberate play in the essence of the sport. Changing the Game Project is a unique initiative created by John O’Sullivan with the mission of “returning youth sports to our children.” A former athlete and long-time coach, O’Sullivan is an author and speaker — he even has a TED Talk on the topic that you can see on his website. He’s also a man who understands the dangers of early specialization. In an article on specialization, he notes a difference between what’s called “deliberate play” and “deliberate practice.” The former maximizes enjoyment and has been shown to increase “motor skills, emotional stability and creativity”. The latter “practices” are motivated by “performance enhancement and not enjoyment”(22). Play gets to the purpose and goal of sport, the latter is a key hallmark of early specialization.
The problem right now is that not enough people are sharing this information. There are plenty of programs available in all sports that have the right approach, but those programs are being outsold by those promoting the idea of specializing at an early age. These programs are promising guaranteed skill enhancement, games against the best competition, and exposure to high school and college coaches looking for athletes. It certainly sounds enticing, but we should know better. That’s why we need to band together and promote an alternative. We need to make the joys and benefits of multi-sport participation just as enticing to parents and kids alike, while educating parents on the risks associated with early specialization. This isn’t a self-serving idea, as CYO certainly is not the only game in town capable of leading families in this direction. There are plenty of options here and there could be many more. Remember the “big business” and savvy marketers involved in youth sports? They’re not going to give up if families begin to move away from early specialization. Many programs are going to adapt and create more opportunities catered to what families are looking for. Ideally it works well for everyone.
All this begins with people like you sharing information with friends and family, encouraging them to consider the benefits of participating in multiple sports and saving specialization until at least high school. Even if it’s not ideal, past 15 years old it might actually have the desired benefit if the child truly wishes to devote themselves to a single sport. A movement starts with parents who are fed up with a poor experience deciding that it’s not too late to switch programs and assure their child has a diverse youth sports experience. It also starts with youth sports organizations and communities like ours working together through creative partnerships and shared education initiatives to promote a better environment for our children. If we have the ability, we should work to promote initiatives by state high school associations, the NCAA and other sports governing bodies that discourage early specialization and advocate for a diverse and fun-centered youth sports experience. Many organizations beginning to do just that, including our own CYO.
Finally, we should volunteer ourselves to coach our children. Seriously. One of the interesting side affects of early specialization is that as a society we’re handing our children over more and more to so-called “expert” coaches who claim to have great depths of experience in a given sport. These coaches may or may not have as much experience as they claim, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s interesting is that some of the absolute best coaches begin with limited to no experience at all with the sport they coach. Instead, they begin with an eagerness to learn and a desire to teach their own kids and others the virtue, skills and fun that sport can offer. These coaches are the ones who continually have the greatest impact on the kids involved; they are usually the coaches cited by elite athletes for teaching them to love the game at a young age. They understand the need to get involved in multiple activities and encourage the kids to find out what else they enjoy. Most importantly, it turns out that the best coach in the world for a child is Mom or Dad. Whether you realize it or not, your children would likely rather play for you than anyone else. If more parents volunteer to coach at the youngest levels and encourage fun in a wide range of experiences, early specialization won’t seem quite so attractive.
I think it’s fair to conclude from our research that early specialization is a dangerous path wherein the risks far outweigh the perceived benefits. It is important that we work to educate families on this topic and work to promote a youth sports experience that is positive and beneficial for children of all skill levels and backgrounds. In addition to the suggestions made here, there are likely many more unique ways you can combat early specialization in your own families and communities. I encourage you to consider your own children and whether or not their teams promote a healthy approach that includes many different sports and activities. I would also encourage you to research this topic on your own. Seek out other sources and speak to coaches or educators you know who may have insight into this arena. Discern how your own involvement could assure your child has the best possible experience. While I hope our work can be educational, it’s ultimately up to those of us who are parents to weigh the benefits and risks of specialization before deciding which path we want our children to take. I hope that the information provided here can help families to make decisions that positively impact their child’s experience in sport and lead to a lifetime of participation. Our kids deserve as much.
Coming Soon…The second topic in our look at Causes for Concern, “Will the Real Coaches Please Stand Up? A Look at the Rise of Poor Coaching and Bad Behavior.” Don’t forget to get involved in the conversation during this entire series by logging on to facebook.com/CYOJWA and Twitter @CYOJWA.
(10) John P. DiFiori, MD,* Holly J. Benjamin, MD, Joel Brenner, MD, MPH, Andrew Gregory, MD, Neeru Jayanthi, MD,¶ Greg L. Landry, MD, and Anthony Luke, MD, MPH. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 24, Number 1. January 2014. Accessed January 30, 2015.
(11) Hewett, Timothy E., Ph.D. Why women have an increased risk of ACL injury. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. November 2010. http://www.aaos.org/news/aaosnow/nov10/research3.asp. Accessed January 30, 2015.
(12) Abstract. Young female athletes suffering epidemic of ACL knee injuries. Loyola University Health System. April 30, 2014. Accessed January 30, 2015.
(13) Gregory, Bonnie and Nyland, John. Medial Elbow Injury in Young Throwing Athletes. Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments Journal. April — June 2013. Accessed January 29, 2015.
(14) Guidelines for Participation in Youth Sports Programs: Specialization Versus Multiple-Sport Participation. National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). Accessed January 29, 2015.
(15) Wiersma, Lenny D. Risks and Benefits of Youth Sport Specialization: Perspectives and Recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2000. Accessed January 29, 2015.
(16) Kaufman, Keith A. Ph.D. Research via Metzler, J. (2002). Understanding Student-Athlete Burnout. Applying motivational principles to individual athletes. In J. M. Silva & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 80–106). Boston:Allyn and Bacon. January 30, 2015.
(17) Play Like a Champion Today: Coach as Ministry Initiative. Video. Play Like a Champion Today Program at the University of Notre Dame. 2012.
(18) Rowland, T.W. Counseling the young athlete: where do we draw the line? Ped. Exec Sci. 9:197–201, 1997. January 29, 2015.
(19) Tofler, I.R., B.K. Stryer, L.J. Micheli, and L.R. Herman. Physical and emotional problems of elite female gymnasts. New England J. Med. 335(4):281–283, 1996. January 30, 2015.
(20) Wiersma, Lenny D. Risks and Benefits of Youth Sport Specialization: Perspectives and Recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2000. Accessed January 29, 2015.
(21) Guidelines for Participation in Youth Sports Programs: Specialization Versus Multiple-Sport Participation. National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE). Accessed January 29, 2015.
(22) O’Sullivan, John. Is it Wise to Specialize? www.changingthegameproject.com/is-it-wise-to-specialize/. Accessed January 31, 2015.
Executive Director, CYO