Let the kids play... ev­ery­thing

Why early sport spe­cial­i­sa­tion is break­ing our kids

Multisport Mecca - - Column - Kate Gaz­zard Sports medicine doc­tor, phys­io­ther­a­pist and ath­lete

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.

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