Kids, their parents, and coaches have all accepted the concept that practice makes perfect when it comes to sports.
Around a third of school-aged athletes, today specialize in a single sport.
Participating in strenuous, year-round training regimens, often on numerous teams, according to some estimates.
They’re also refining their concentration at a quite young age.
Between the ages of 10 and 12, many children begin to focus on a single sport, according to Neeru Jayanthi, a sports psychologist.
a physician at Atlanta’s Emory Sports Medicine. It wasn’t always like this in youth athletics.
“What used to be a chance to have fun with your friends has evolved into a competition to see how good you can get and how quickly you can get there,” Jayanthi says.
Jayanthi was one of the first scholars to attract attention to what he called “youth sports specialization” about two decades ago.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates that this practice is harming young athletes.
Burnout and damage have been linked to hyper-focused, year-round training in children.
Children lack neuromuscular control and are not physically developed enough to perform one motion over and over, according to sports medicine physicians and other experts.
and that encouraging them to do so could harm their physical and emotional health in the long run.
Is there such a thing as too much practice?
Serena Williams first picked up a racquet at the age of four, whereas Tiger Woods began golfing at the age of two.
Famous sportsmen who began their careers as toddlers have fostered the belief that success requires starting early and training hard.
According to Jayanthi, the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book “Outliers,” only reinforced that idea.
According to the theory, mastering a complex talent requires 10,000 hours of practice.
(As it turns out, this rule was never intended for athletes, according to Jayanthi.)
The initial research that suggested this amount relied on a limited number of chess champions and great musicians, and more current data has cast doubt on those findings.)
The following is the outcome of these messages: Parents and coaches worry that if they don’t push their children to focus on one sport all year, they would lose interest in it.
According to Elizabeth Matzkin, an orthopedic physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, their young athletes will fall behind.
“It isn’t true,” Matzkin clarifies, “but the fear of falling behind is real.”
More than half of 201 parents of young athletes said they hoped their child would go on to play sports professionally or at least in college, a feat that only about 1% of children achieve.
Those parents were more likely to encourage their kids to pursue athletics as a career.
As it turns out, there is no scientific proof that concentrating solely on one sport as a child leads to eventual success.
Twenty-two research on the training histories of elite and non-elite adult athletes was analyzed by a group of physician-scientists, including Jayanthi.
Their findings, which were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2019, were clear: “Zero out of twenty-two trials proved that specialization had any benefit,” Jayanthi adds.
The reverse was observed in one of the studies included in the review, which was published in 2013 in the Journal of Sports Sciences: Among the more than 1000 athletes who competed,
When compared to their peers who had only played one sport at 11, 13, and 15, individuals who had played three sports were more than twice as likely to play at a national level by late adolescence.
How specializing harms children
Athletes under the age of 18 are not miniature adults. Young athletes’ developing brains do not have the same level of muscle control as older adolescents or adults, which takes time to perfect.
Matzkin claims that their bodies aren’t as powerful or capable of withstanding repetitive motion.
As a result, they are susceptible to overuse ailments such as shin splints and stress fractures.
These childhood injuries can have long-term repercussions, including degenerative disorders like arthritis in adulthood at the site of the original injury.
“We can get them back out on the field, we can cure them,” Matzkin adds, “but we won’t be able to avert the effects in 15 or 20 years.”
Any child who participates in sports has some risk of injury, but data suggests that participating in just one sport increases the risk.
A group of sports medicine experts assessed 546 female basketball, soccer, and volleyball players in 2015, asking them about their pain levels and training schedules.
Single-sport players were four times more likely than multisport athletes to acquire knee problems, according to the findings, which were published in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation.
Maintaining the game’s enjoyment
Not only does training in numerous sports work out different muscle groups while allowing the others to rest, but it also gives the rest of the body a respite.
It helps children gain the neuromuscular control they need to succeed and avoid injuries such as ligament rips, according to Matzkin.
She adds that it also reduces burnout, or emotional and physical tiredness, which can keep children from participating in physical activity long into adulthood.
Some experts argue that more than the number of sports, the sheer volume of training and pressure to perform at a high level, has a role in injury and burnout.
The majority of studies on sports specialization are retrospective in nature and do not account for aspects such as training hours.
It is feasible to be a healthy specialized athlete, according to Jayanthi, but it demands continuous and meticulous monitoring of the young athlete’s training routine.
It’s also crucial to ensure that the child is satisfied with the training volume and does not feel under too much pressure to succeed.
If a young athlete wants to compete at a high level in a sport, there comes an age when specialization is appropriate. Jayanthi says, “It’s not a horrible choice for everyone.”
However, Jayanthi advises that parents should not contemplate allowing their children to specialize in a sport before they are fourteen years old, even if a coach supports it and a child begs to stop participating in other sports.
It’s safe to reassess around mid- or late adolescence. He explains, “You have to do what you feel in your heart is best for the kid.”
Finally, Matzkin advises parents and children to remember the purpose of juvenile sports: to have fun.
“When we look at all of our youth athletes, less than one percent will make it to the top level,” she says, “so finding more happiness in the game than wanting to be great is a lot more important.”