It goes like this: parents notice their kid’s talent in a single sport and push them to specialize. But this the wrong approach. Kids who specialize early not only run the risk of growing to resent the game but the repetitive training of a single skill can lead to injury. In fact, doctors regularly stress that playing multiple sports allows kids to develop a more balanced body and stay injury-free. According to research presented at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 55 percent of parents with kids who play sports push them to specialize, despite doctors advising against the practice.
Specifically, the survey – called “Quantifying Parental Influence on Youth Athlete Specialization: A Survey of Athletes’ Parents” – aimed to understand what actually drives parents to make their kids specialize. Eighty percent of the parents surveyed who hired personal trainers believe that their child has the potential to compete at the collegiate or professional level, and it’s here that the problem arises.
“Culturally, we have found that parents have unrealistic expectations for their children to play collegiately or professionally and as a result, they invest in private lessons, trainers, or personal coaches to help their kids,” said Dr. Charles A. Popkin, the study’s lead author. “When you’re investing this amount of time and resources, there can be unwritten, indirect pressure from parents to specialize.”
The number one danger of specialization is something called overuse injury: When kids strain their undeveloped bodies practicing the same motions all year round, their muscles never get the chance to fully heal when they rest. The near-constant strain can result in pediatric trauma, and the need for corrective surgeries to knees, wrists, and shoulders.
The percentage of athletes who suffer from injuries due to specialization vary from sport to sport. According to OneSport – an organization that aims to teach parents, coaches, and young athletes about the dangers of specializing too early – football players are the most prone to specialization injury, with 28 percent of players between the ages 5 to 14 having to seek some special medical treatment. That statistic isn’t any less frightening for youth baseball players (25 percent) or soccer players (22 percent).
On top of the physical and psychological dangers of specializing in a sport early in life, there is also reason to believe that not aiming for a collegiate or professional career will actually help kids excel. The Norwegian Olympic team dominated the most recent winter Olympics, and according to Tore Ovrebo – the Director of Elite Sports for the Norwegian Olympic Committee – it’s not just because they trained hard. In Norway, athletes are taught to love the game and to play without the pressure of competition from a young age. Ovrebo suggests that, by not forcing kids to compete, they are more likely to share tips with each other and focus on personal excellence, not dominance.