Why Kids Shouldn’t Specialize in One Sport

Too Long on the Playing Field? Why More Young Athletes Are Specializing in One Sport – and Why They Shouldn’t Be

"It [specialization] is one of the worst developments imaginable at the youth sports level. Physically, emotionally, developmentally, it's a huge, huge mistake. And it absolutely is happening. It is sweeping the country." -- Bruce Svare, Ph.D., director of the National Institute for Sports Reform

By Deirdre Wilson

Turning 10 is a big milestone for kids. Double digits. Fifth grade. Being a tween. What turning 10 should not be is a time to decide what sport you'll specialize in for the rest of your youth.

Yet, that's exactly what's happening for more and more young children, despite objections from physicians, child-development experts and even youth sports advocates.

Kids as young as 9 or 10 are forgoing other sports to focus on one athletic interest, such as soccer, hockey or gymnastics. The leagues and coaches behind this movement offer year-round practice sessions, weekend tournaments and other competitions - along with the idea that kids who specialize can become star players, have a better chance at making high-school varsity teams or select traveling teams and, ultimately, scoring an athletic scholarship to college.

"I'm seeing kids having to choose, at age 10, whether to play baseball or lacrosse," says Richard Ginsburg, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and co-author of the new book Whose Game Is It, Anyway? "I'm seeing some kids deciding not to play basketball in the winter because they need to play soccer all year-round."

By age 13, about 70 percent of kids involved in a youth sport will have quit. One of the most cited reasons kids give for quitting is that it "isn't fun anymore." 

Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
Michigan State University

But that's not all that Ginsburg and other health-care providers are seeing. Kids at younger ages are suffering serious injuries from overusing muscles, bones and joints in their particular sport.

"If you talk with any orthopedic or pediatric person, they'll tell you the same thing," says Bruce Svare, Ph.D., director of the National Institute for Sports Reform and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the State University of New York in Albany. "These kids are showing up now in their offices at increasing rates with injuries that sometimes are career-ending."

Svare, Ginsburg and others also see increasing numbers of kids feeling pressure from parents and coaches to play in just one sport. The pressure, injuries and an overwhelming sense that the sport simply "isn't fun" anymore have led many young athletes to burn out, quitting the sport before even reaching high school.

The dream - and drive - to become the next Olympian or professional sports star isn't new. Nor is the reality check that most parents and kids eventually confront: Not every child is destined to be the next Tiger Woods or Mia Hamm.

But the push to specialize in one sport during childhood has become more pervasive. A slew of new books have emerged about kids and the increasing physical and psychological demands of sports, and organizations like Svare's are pushing for a return to the root purpose of youth sports: to learn skills, develop character and have fun.

Parents who've nurtured their child's interest in a particular sport may wonder what the fuss is all about. Lots of kids have a favorite sport, one that they're particularly good at. What's wrong with focusing on that one sport?

Svare is adamant: "It is one of the worst developments imaginable at the youth sports level," he says of specialization. "Physically, emotionally, developmentally, it's a huge, huge mistake. And it absolutely is happening. It is sweeping the country."

The Parent Playbook

Football tops the list of sports yielding the most injuries, with 32.3 injuries occurring per 100 participants in football in 2002. This is compared to 13.2 injuries per 100 participants in basketball and 11.4 per 100 in-line skating, the sports with the next highest incidence of injury.

American Sports Data Inc.

Ginsburg, Svare and others who object to this specialization lay most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of adults - particularly parents.

Obviously, parents aren't intentionally trying to harm their kids. Some may not realize the risks involved with allowing an enthusiastic young athlete to play one sport exclusively, says Nicole Sperekas, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of A Sport for Every Kid. "But some may see their kid as a prodigy in that particular sport and all the parent starts thinking about at that point is getting a college scholarship for the child," she says.

Sperekas, a former competitive swimmer and coach, says she often hears from youth sports coaches that parents are the ones orchestrating more intense playing experiences for their kids. "The parent will go to the coaches and say, 'I want you to play my kid more; I want my kid to play the sport year-round and to have some extra coaching. Why? Because I think he has enough talent to get a college scholarship or be in the pro bowl.'"

Ginsburg believes the problem trickles down from the elite levels of sport - part of an entire culture that emphasizes winning and the utmost in success

"There's this formula or pattern that starts at high levels," he says. "Coaches at the Division 1 college level feel they have to have winning programs. And parents want to send their kids to these high-level schools. They're thinking, 'What do I have to do to get my son or daughter into these schools? Better start getting them to play soccer now when they're 8.'"

Little League pitchers are increasingly throwing curveballs, despite stern warnings that the arm rotation involved can destroy tendons in a young pitcher's elbow. In 1991, 23 percent were curveballs or other breaking balls. In the 2001 championship game, that number jumped to 64 percent.

"Today's parent is trapped in the pressurized world of getting a child to the elite level," echoes Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, which also promotes the teamwork and character-building values of sports for kids. "Before it was OK for their kids just to play sports. Now parents feel they are letting their child down if they don't get them a college scholarship."

Certainly, kids themselves can be as overzealous as parents, says Engh. "There are children who crave sports and want to be the best. Just like in music, art, drama, etc. There are also parents who say, 'It's not going to happen to me the next time' - meaning they didn't make the level in sports they thought they could have and are making sure their child does."

Coaches, Too

In their defense, however, many parents are hearing from youth sports coaches who feed into the "formula" for success that Ginsburg refers to.

"There is this drive to get your kids into the best situation possible," he says. "And you're being told by coaches that you have to follow a certain path. That creates anxiety for parents, who are thinking that if they don't, they're somehow putting their kid at a disadvantage."

Sperekas agrees: "I think a good coach or teacher needs to tell parents, 'Get a grip. Only a small percentage of kids go on to play high-school varsity. A smaller percentage go on to play college and a smaller percentage go on from there.' You can ruin it for your kids. They may be good enough to eventually get there. But if it's not done right, you're going to ruin it for them and they're not going to get there."

Furthermore, she says, youth sports coaches are often volunteers, even parents themselves - not professionals trained in sports physiology.

"Kids' training habits are not being overseen by someone really knowledgeable," she says. "They don't have trainers or professional people keeping track of how much practicing is going on and how the kids are practicing. It's not like it is in college or at the professional level."

And that can be dangerous, leading to injuries, stress and burnout that might have been prevented otherwise.

The Right Time

Specialization in any pursuit isn't necessarily a bad thing. A child has to be interested, however, and physically and emotionally ready for it. Young kids, experts say, are not ready.

Ginsburg recounts seeing anxious 10-year-olds worrying that if they miss a practice, they won't play in an upcoming game. "It creates a frenzy," he says of the pressurized culture of youth sports. "And what is lost is the perspective about what actually is good for the child."

So when should your determined little athlete be allowed to focus exclusively on one sport to the exclusion of others? Not before ages 12 or 13. In fact, the high school years may be the best time to start specializing, say physicians, psychologists and youth sports advocates.

In childhood, "our bodies are not meant to be just doing one thing," says Ginsburg. "We need time to rest, grow and develop." Trying different things and using different muscles is healthy both physically and emotionally, he says.

Specializing in a sport at any age can lead to overuse injuries, such as shin splints, chronic-use injuries (often to the ankles or knees), and bone fractures; children are particularly vulnerable. Sperekas points to an increase in child athletes suffering elbow, knee, back and wrist injuries that physicians used to see only in aging or older athletes.

And then there's the anxiety, pressure and eventual burnout experienced by many kids who specialize too soon.

"I've seen some kids, anywhere from 13 to 16, quit a sport they were actually fairly good at and had been playing for years, and they'll say, 'It's not fun anymore,'" Sperekas says. And some of these kids wanted to quit a year or two earlier but didn't know how to bring it up to their parents, she adds.

Often, children who don't want to let their parents down will continue to complain about a sports injury that has long healed, or feign fatigue or illness, to be able to skip practice.

"You might see kids actually become depressed, not sleeping well, getting more withdrawn and irritable," adds Ginsburg. It's a "slow, developing burnout" in children who are "so tuned in to parents who are really invested in them doing well," he says. "The key is to try to catch those signs."