Weekly Wellness: Should children specialize in a sport?

AP Photos
AP Photos

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses why having your child specialize in a single sport, especially if you have a girl, may not be the best idea.

There is a growing trend in America to have children specialize in just one sport at quite a young age. It seems like the three sport athlete is a stereotype of the past, and for kids to really excel at a sport they must devote nearly all of their time and energy to developing skills related to that sport at a very young age. But is this really necessary or beneficial? There are many physical, emotional and social costs to consider when deciding if a child should be a single sport athlete.

After training many child athletes, I feel that parents seem to have a fear that their child will be left behind if they don’t start to specialize in a sport at a very young age, literally as young as the age of 6 or 7.  For many kids, what ends up happening is their parents force them into a sport that is often not of their own choosing, and, in many cases, compel them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, intrinsically motivating and completely aligned with their actual athletic abilities and strengths.

There are many startling facts about early sport specialization that can shed light on this topic. For example, studies have shown that children who specialize early in one sport are at a much greater risk for mental burnout due to stress and lack of motivation and enjoyment. Early sport specialization is also one of the strongest predictors of injury in children, with one study of 1,200 youth athletes showing that these athletes who specialized were “70 percent to 93 percent more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.” As if the mental burnout and physical injury were not enough, other studies show that early sport specialization leads to a higher rate of adult physical inactivity!

Taking an honest assessment of the child athletes I have worked with, I can definitely see the physical overuse injuries that result, and particularly with girls. I have met so many adolescent female athletes with knee issues that it is beyond coincidence that these athletes typically specialize in one sport. A study has shown that for teenage girls in particular, early sport specialization is associated with “increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding-Larson Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.”

I believe that the science of the body and sport psychology shows a more effective path, and that is one of multiple sport participation and less structured play. More and more research is confirming that children should be exposed to a wide variety of athletic challenges and skill-sets, as it benefits children in many ways, including better overall skills and ability, increased ability to transfer sports skills, a longer playing career and better decision making and pattern recognition.

Also, did you know that “a 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child?”

The Takeaway: Given what I have seen with the young athletes I have worked with, I am a firm believer in exposing children to as many sports as possible to help develop a wide array of skill sets that can be transferrable between sports. This variety of movement also stimulates the muscles and joints in a multitude of ways, which prevents overuse injuries. It also keeps the child mentally stimulated and makes the activity fresh and fun, which helps to avoid burnout and stress. I highly recommend child athletes play as many different sports as possible to not only become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but to make them a greater overall athlete.

 

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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