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Hidden Danger in Kids Sporting Specialisation
Hidden Danger in Kids Sporting Specialisation
, | February 01 2021
By Specialist Coach Tracy Welsh

Things have changed dramatically since most of us were kids, including the choice of sports and activities available for our kids. Today more than at any other time in our adult lives, we will find an abundance of sports and activities for our kids to participate in. This sounds great but it’s uncovered the hidden dangers in kids sports specialisation.

Although things are a little different in pandemic times for so many countries, we will all get back to our sporting lives eventually, where there is something available every day of the week. There is so much to choose from, and not only do kids’ sports look more and more professional; additionally, the sporting seasons now also go on forever!  Amateur and weekend sports, the seasons are getting longer and longer, just cycling between summer and winter comps continually.

There is such a thing as too much, even in sport and fitness

Many parents are worried about their children’s health and fitness, and increasingly so. They see the rising tide of sedentary lifestyles and obesity in kids, so they try to make sure their children stay active. Many of us have heeded the warnings and keep our kids active. No-one warned us though, that there could be danger, a chance of them doing too much, nor that it could take a toll on their young bodies and minds. Sadly it can, and some will suffer life-long repercussions.

This parental understanding of children’s need to get off the lounge, wanting our kids active, has led to unwanted phenomena.

When great intentions don’t equal great results

One of the two more common problems is when time-poor parents add to their stress, trying to keep up with all their kids’ activities and find their kids have no room for downtime or anything else. These kids are active in one sport or another every free moment of their day. Parental needs and strains aside; it’s great to have active kids, but kids also need to have open unstructured play. Free play enables the use of their imagination, the practice of activities that require fine motor skills, require more patience, and if they’re very active, activities that give their bodies a chance to recover and refuel. Kids still need to be free spirits.

The downside to being talented

Then we have kids who show some athletic prowess; perhaps they have some sports skills many other kids don’t yet have, who then find well-intentioned sports Coaches pressure them to “specialise’ and commit to more training and play… and in that sport alone. More is going to make them even better right, a champion?!  More and more we see coaches and parents opting for the early specialisation of their kids, attempting to sway the odds of them capitalising on their gift of early skills. Yes sadly, there are also parents who never “made it” themselves who are trying to live with greatness through their child or perhaps have their child emulate their feats. All of which puts immense pressure on young minds and bodies.

What is Early Specialisation?

The idea that early specialisation leads to elite sporting prowess has begun to gain traction with many Coaches, parents and children over the last few years. This “specialisation belief” would see the child participating in ONE sport from an early age and doing it year-round, year on year – perhaps even added competition in its twin sport in the offseason or for fun.

An example is playing soccer all year, attending all the soccer games, plus training & drills every day from a very young age and then for “fun,” playing futsal as ‘something different,” when in fact to the body fundamentally it’s the same thing.

Now you might ask, what about Olympians and high-grade professional sports athletes then, how do they become great? They must focus on the ONE sport, mustn’t they?  Let’s look at that.

There are many development programs aimed at creating our future champions. The higher the development program’s level, the more intense the high-volume training and more rigorous the coaching will be, which usually requires some high-level endorsement and support from parents to enable achievement.

What the evidence from great specialist programs & hundreds of athletes are showing us

Time and again though, the best athletes are showing they did not specialise at young ages and were better because of it. They learnt more varied skills, both mental and physical, and their bodies made neurological adaptions to a wide range of conditions that made them physically more tolerant and robust in relation to injury risk or burnout… it made them into the elite athletes they are.

Let’s look at Olympic programs where we have such a large pool of data. We see that they and the magnetism of big-dollar professional contracts highly influence young athletes and their families to specialise in one sport.

However, it doesn’t translate to success. Just looking at the United States alone, which despite having some of the best programmings globally, shows that only 0.2% to 0.5% of US high school athletes ever make it to the professional level. (1)(2)  A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of successful collegiate athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.

So what’s the problem, you might ask?

Quality studies are starting to mount up. They have found some worrying emerging evidence as to the negatives, not only for overly active kids but, more importantly, also for the kids who are specialising.

Some critical negative findings include:
  • There’s a clearly identified link between early sports specialisation and adult inactivity. Kids get over it! Sadly, this leads to less activity as these children (and then as adults ) want to do something else. Sadly, many will give up on sports and exercise altogether, increasing their adverse health outcomes and risks in adult life. The comparison would be akin to being raised on a chicken farm and eating chicken every meal for 18years. It’s fair to say you probably wouldn‘t want to go anywhere near chicken again – at least not for a very long time! (3)(4)(5)
  • Early specialisation can lead to a lifetime loss of, or undeveloped, gross & fine motor skills, along with problem-solving skills to levels developed with access and participation in a multitude of activities. The best athletes have been shown to have experienced a broad range of movement experiences via playing multiple sports. This has developed broad sporting skills, advanced problem-solving and spatial awareness skills, developed both leadership and sportsmanship triats. They have developed mental fortitude and independent motivation.
  • Children in single specialised sports account for 50% of overuse injuries. One study found that of 1200 young specialist athletes, 70-93% were more likely to suffer injury than kids playing multiple sports.
  • Early specialisation linked with painful injuries; higher patellofemoral knee pain rates, Osgood-Schlatter, and especially in female adolescents, Sinding Larsen-Johansson Syndrome. (6)
  • Increased risk of ACL tears with future age. (6)(7)(8)(9)
  • Burnout is commonly experienced leading to stress disorders and increased weight and obesity issues in adulthood, along with the cohort of illnesses and disease that goes with them.
So what is best for your kids?

Participation in Multi-sports is recommended but not competitively in the same season. Multi-sport participation and free-play through younger ages and middle adolescence lead to greater overall skills, ability, game cognition & decision-making ability. This gives a child the best developmental road to greatness if that is their passion.

When is it okay to specialise?

Except for a few sports where the athlete peaks in competition at a younger age, such as gymnastics, kids should be playing a variety of sports – with both free play and varied activities skills. If competing in a sport, it should be one sport per season and a differently skilled sport in the other seasons. You should not swap a season with its twin sport e.g., soccer and futsal, nor should you see your child competing or training 5-6 days a week for 1.5 – 2hours a session.

Recommended ages for specialisation will differ according to each sport.  Recommendations consider peak performance age and needs around physical development, levels of maturity and mental fortitude.

A few examples would be;
  • Gymnastics, Diving, Figure skating – Early adolescents
  • Team sports, tennis, golf – Middle Adolescence
  • Endurance sports, track, distance events (10)

There are specific recommendations by the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association for youth performance and fitness, advising workloads, durations, training modalities, etc. far too many to list here, but following the guidelines will see risks minimised.

Final thoughts

So encourage your kids to play sport, support them in their passion but please remember; they need to be trained smarter ..not harder.

Please educate yourself by seeking unbiased or independent advice for your child’s sake before following recommendations to the contrary.  Your hard-working Coach has the best of intentions, but their enthusiasm may lead to a circumstance that is less than the best. There are so many ways to support your child to become an elite athlete if that is their passion via multi-sports, strength and mobility training, recovery programs, and best of all, allowing them to have fun. Doing this will increase their chances of remaining injury-free, loving their sport, remaining active for life, and of success.

Coach Tracy

For more detailed Specialist Coaching or Sports Science advice and what suits your child best;  call us on 02 66995000 or email us at info @beyondlimitscoffs.com.au

References:

(1). McLeod TCV, Decoster LC, Loud KJ, et al. National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: prevention of pediatric overuse injuries. J Athl Train. 2011;46:206-220. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

(2). National Collegiate Athletic Association. The National Collegiate Athletic Association “fact sheet.” http://www.ncaa.org/about/fact_sheet.pdf. Accessed September 2010.

(3 Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long-term problems? Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

(4) Sports Specialisation -Pt 1  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4547120/

(5) Sports specialisation – Pt 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4702158/#bibr37-1941738115614811

(6) Increased injury risk young females  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4247342/

(7) Injury Risk Associated With Sports Specialization and Activity Volume in Youth  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751532/

(8) ACL Injury Epidemic, Early Specialisation, Year-Round Play May Be Linked

8.1 Franzen J, Pion J, et. al. Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6-12 years specialising in one versus sampling more than one sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, DOI:10.1080/02640414.2011.642808 (available online ahead of print: 03 Jan 2012)(citing studies).

  • Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems?  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061. 
    • . DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sport Med 2014;24(1):3-20.
    • 4.  Sagas M. What does the science say about athletic development in children. Research Brief, University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program’s Project Play. September 13, 2013 (accessed at http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/At…).
    • 5. Mikalide AD, Hansen LM. Coaching our kids to fewer injuries: a report on youth sports safety. In: Worldwide SK, ed. Washington, DC. Safe Kids Worldwide; 2012. 

(9)   Alison E. Field, Frances A. Tepolt, Daniel S. Yang, Mininder S. Kocher. Injury Risk Associated With Sports Specialization and Activity Volume in Youth. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019; 7 (9): 232596711987012 DOI: 10.1177/2325967119870124

(10) Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports specialisation in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5:251-257. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

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