Contrary to popular belief, specializing in a single sport is not the best way to make a great athlete. Less structured play and multiple sport participation serves the needs of children for a lifetime, reduces injuries and burnout, increases enjoyment and motivation, and produces better athletes.
Here are five research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your child:
- Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
- A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
- In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
- Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
- Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears (added May 2014)
If that is not enough for you, here are six research based reasons for multi-sport participation:
- Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
- Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
- Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
- 10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one, deliberate practice. That, he says, is wrong.
- Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researches found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment are incredibly important. These are termed deliberate play (as opposed to deliberate practice, which are activities motivated by the goal of performance enhancement and not enjoyment). Deliberate play increases motor skills, emotional ability, and creativity. Children allowed deliberate play also tend spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes in structured training with a coach.
- There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).
As a general rule they recommend the following age breakdown for athletes trying to achieve elite status in a specific sport:
- Prior to age 12: 80% of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports other than the chosen sport!
- Age 13-15: 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic pursuits
- Age 16+: Even when specialization becomes very important, 20% of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.
John O’Sullivan, “Is it Wise to Specialize?” Changing the Game Project
Michael Sagas, “What Does the Science Say About Athletic Development in Children?” University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative
Tom Farrey, “Early Positive Experiences: What is Age Appropriate?“ Roundtable Summary from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society “Project Play” Initiative
Brooke De Lench, “Early Sports Specialization: Does it Lead to Long Term Problems?“ www.momsteam.com
Butler, Chris: Is Early Sport Specialization a Risk Factor for Anterior Knee Pain in Female Athletes?
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