Let the kids play... everything
Why early sport specialisation is breaking our kids
ONCE upon a time, sport used to be seasonal. We’d swim and play tennis or cricket in the summer then in winter we’d turn to rugby, cross country, hockey or football.
History shows that this style of multi-sport training produced a well-balanced, happy, engaged and injury free athlete who may then go on to specialise and excel in their chosen field after leaving school.
Times have changed and more often we see kids training and competing in one sport from an early age with hopes and aspirations of being the world’s best.
While most experts agree that some degree of sports specialisation is necessary to achieve elite levels, there is great debate as to whether such intense practise must begin during early childhood and to the exclusion of other sports to maximise potential for success.
There is a growing concern that sports specialisation before adolescence may be deleterious to a young athlete.
I see a lot of child athletes in my practice and, sadly, those suffering the most severe, debilitating injuries are those who are specialising in just one sport and training excessively while their little bodies are growing.
For most sports, there is absolutely no evidence that intense training and specialisation before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status.
Risks of early sports specialisation include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.
Here are the statistics on specialised sport:
1. Children who specialise in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes.
2. A study by Ohio State University in the USA found that children who specialised early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. That’s right – those who go for broke at a young age are often the first to quit and stay on the sidelines for life. 3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Loyola University found that early specialisation in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialised were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
4. Children who specialise early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
5. Early sport specialisation in females is associated with increased risk of knee pain disorders and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.
If that is not enough for you, here are research-based reasons for multi-sport participation:
1. Better skills and ability:
Research shows that early participation in many sports leads to better overall athletic development, skill acquisition, longer playing careers, increased motivation and confidence.
2. Smarter players: Multi-sport participation leads to better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
3. Most professional athletes come from a multi-sport
background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of professional athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.
4. Free play equals more
play: Research has found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximise 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.
5. 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), hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10 000 hour rule, says his work is being misrepresented and 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.
While some degree of sports specialisation is necessary to develop elite-level skill development, for most sports, such intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others should be delayed until late adolescence to optimise success while minimising injury, psychological stress, and burnout.
Let kids play!
Odds ratio of injury risk in relation to weekly training hours in youth athletes.
The comparison between early specialisation and multilateral development.