When should my child specialize in one sport?

JohnOSullivan-HeaderThe greatest difference between our children’s sporting experience and our own is the rise of year round, sport specific organizations that ask – even require – season after season of participation in order to stay in the player development pipeline. The pressure to have your child specialize in a single sport at a young age has never been stronger.

As a result, parents ask me all the time “When should my child specialize in one sport?”

Tiger-woods-as-a-boy

When I tell them what the science says to wait, many tell me “That’s not possible. If my child does not specialize early she will be left out, not make the travel or high school team, and have no chance of playing in college. You live in a fantasy world.” They tell me about coaches who have told them they need 10,000 hours of organized, structured practice, and their fear that other kids will be getting a leg up on theirs if they do not specialize. They are stuck in a downward spiral that is detrimental to their children, but feel helpless to change course.

In the words of Kirk Anderson, Director of Coaching Education for the US Tennis Association:

“Even if parents and coaches know and understand age-appropriate principles for children, I think they would be reluctant to accept them because they would fear their child would fall behind the kid in a more structured program that focuses on training, competition and deliberate practice.”

This fear has forced kids into sports that often are not of their own choosing, and in many cases compels them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, not intrinsically motivating, nor are congruent with their actual athletic abilities. This path fails to consider many of the physical, emotional and social costs to children who only play a single sport.

There is a different path. It is the one based in science, psychology and best practices of athletic development. It is one that serves the needs of children for a lifetime, reduces injuries and burnout, increases enjoyment and motivation, and produces better athletes. Sound appealing?

It is the path of multiple sport participation and less structured play.

But don’t take my word for it. Below are some eye popping facts and statistics that should make every parent think twice about early sport specialization in sports like football, soccer, baseball, hockey and basketball, where athletes peak in their 20′s. (sources at the end of the article).

First, here are four research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your child:

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
  2. A study by OhioStateUniversity found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of LoyolaUniversity found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment

If that is not enough for you, here are six research based reasons for multi-sport participation:

  1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
  2. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields 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 College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
  4. 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), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, 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.
  5. Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researches found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximize 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.
  6. There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

Multiple-sports-pic

An additional thought is provided by top youth sports researchers Jean Cote andJessica Fraser-Thomas. They suggest that at no time should a young athlete participate year round in a single sport. While they recommend that athletes in sports whose competitors peak after age 20 need to accumulate around 10,000 hours of general sports participation, no more than half of that needs to be deliberate practice of their chosen sport. As a general rule they recommend the following age breakdown for athletes trying to achieve elite status in a specific sport:

  • Prior to age 12: 80% of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports OTHER THAN the chosen sport!
  • Age 13-15: 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic pursuits
  • Age 16+: Even when specialization becomes very important, 20% of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.

How Do You Approach People with this Information?

Every adult involved in youth sports will come up against people who advocate for single sport specialization. Some think their child is the next Tiger Woods, the next Venus Williams, the next Lionel Messi, so they are getting in their 10,000 hours. Others are afraid to go against the grain, and fear that they are disadvantaging their own child by not specializing. Hogwash!

I meet these folks too, and I blind them with the science. I then ask for the data and research that supports their theory. Cue the cricket noises, because it does not exist.

If you know these folks, send this to them. Post it on Facebook. Send it to your club director and your coach who thinks you should skip grandma’s 90th birthday because your U11 team has your fourth tournament of the summer that weekend (this is an actual call I took by the way).

Of course, this will not work all the time, or even most of the time. Visit your local airport smoking lounge to see the effect an abundance of science on the hazards of smoking has on many folks. But who cares, present it anyway!

At some point, parents need to ask themselves “Are we ready for a better alternative?” Does my 10 year old really need to keep playing 11.5 months of soccer a year in order to have a chance of success? Am I really doing him a disservice by making him play multiple sports, and trying to help him find one he is passionate about?

I think we are ready for an alternative. I think people are sick of 11 straight months of 6am trips to the hockey rink, and weekend after weekend of expensive out of town soccer tournaments for “elite” 11 year olds. I know I am not alone in thinking this.

The best sport psychology is on our side. The best research into athletic development and physiology is on our side. The top minds in sports medicine are on our side.

Aligned against us are a few people who stand to profit from promoting the mythology surrounding single sport specialization. Not scientists. Not researchers. Not top coaching minds. Profiteers, often backed by parents and coaches living out their own unfulfilled sports dreams through the children.

I like the company I am keeping these days. For the sake of our kids, I hope you will join me.

Please share your thoughts, comments and questions below.

Sources for this article included:

Michael Sagas, “What Does the Science Say About Athletic Development in Children?” University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative

Tom Farrey, “Early Positive Experiences: What is Age Appropriate?” Roundtable Summary from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society “Project Play” Initiative

Brooke De Lench, “Early Sports Specialization: Does it Lead to Long Term Problems?” www.momsteam.com

John O'Sullivan - Changing The Game Bio

By | February 4, 2014 | 12 Comments | Tags: , ,

Comments

  1. SoccermomFC says:

    What do you say to a child who insists they only *want* to play one sport despite your repeated attempts to introduce them to other options so they can try new things? My U9 boy is passionate about soccer but has been very adamant that he is not interested in playing other organized sports. We convinced him to play flag football for the past two fall seasons, and in his free time he plays all kinds of sports with his friends. So does being a multi-sport athlete require a player to do it through an organized program? I realize he isn’t getting the same benefits as he would if he were being coached, having regular, structured practices and playing in games, but if one of the goals is cross-training to avoid overuse than would this be an acceptable alternative?

    • Western MD Soccer Coach says:

      SoccermomFC,
      We had the same issue with our daughter who has been in love with soccer since she started playing. We have encouraged her to try other sports like basketball, or cross country. She just had no interest in playing them as an organized sport. Even her physical education teachers and coaches from other sports were asking her to play something besides soccer. But she wouldn’t. Now that she has started high school, she has decided that she wants to run track. She is still honest with the track coach that soccer is her primary but she loves the interactions with her track teammates and the new skills she is learning and the different training regiment. I think for most kids playing multiple sports is a good thing, and one we are following with our other children, but I think that certain athletes are just focused on one sport. My recommendation is to make sure that your son can play without pressure. While my daughter does play travel soccer, we also let her play rec league games, or guest play for indoor teams where there is no pressure but only if she wants to play. We monitor her practice time, she can’t do 2 training session or do a training session and play a game on the same day, make sure she is eating/sleeping/recovering appropriately and make sure that her school work doesn’t suffer. Again, I don’t think that it is a bad thing to focus on one travel sport, even at U10 as long as they have other outlets.

    • Soccermom FC I hear you, a lot of people have the same question. I wrote a follow up on my own blog, her eis the link:http://changingthegameproject.com/what-about-the-single-sport-athlete-specialization-part-ii/

      I hope that is helpful.

  2. soccermom#6 says:

    Single sport at 10 is bad but by the time players are 13 or 14, it is time to get special training and focus on one. If not, they will not get better (Jack of all trades master of none). Most coaches now-a-days realize the need for cross training and use them so this argument about injuries will go away soon. With cross training during off season to strengthen different muscle groups and a light load of training that builds up to the start of the season should work. Also we always hear that players in Europe and elsewhere are better than US players because they do the same thing day in day out (do nothing but soccer for several hours each day). So how come those players do not have chronic injuries?

    • Thanks soccermom#6 I agree that by high school, kids are starting to make some decisions about where they want to go with a sport, have many other demands on their time, etc. They still need to be monitored for overuse, get adequate rest and nutrition, and proper periodization and down time. IN professional academies throughout the world, their oversight of their players from school to sport to food is so much different then in the US. Take La Masia, which has full time coaches, massage therapists, academic tutors, psychologists, chefs, nutritional experts, doctors and physical therapists, all for approximately 300 kids. Nothing here even comes close.

      • Bama says:

        John, you are right about the all around support those academies give a player. Even though they accept them at young ages they provide the proper environment to develop them as individuals.
        I wish the academies/clubs here would be more willing to cooperate more with organizations. Would it be to much for DC United to work with DC schools and get tutors for their players??? Help with transportation from school to practice??? Money cant be that much of a issue since the owner recently acquired Inter Milan.

        • Messy says:

          I think money is a real issue. MLS does not make money like leagues in Europe. Here MLS is way, way behind college football and basketball in fan interest (and revenue). Forget MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, etc., which are an order of magnitude more profitable. DCU does not have the money to look like a European academy, and if it did, the local landscape would be different. As it stands, DCU may not even field the best teams in particular youth age groups locally (a lot of kids want to play high school, do not want to travel down town to RFK to train, etc.). Until there is a true residential program at places like DCU, the concept of the “home grown” player in any real quantity will continue to be elusive. A club like DCU just does not have the resources to do that and there is no payback given MLS economics. The reality is that for 99.99% of the youth players in the U.S., soccer will cost more much more than the return if measured by $$ (and even if training fees are subsidized) — for boys, scholarship money is very lean, given there are less than 10 scholarships per team. So, even if your kid goes on to play in college, chances are you will have to pay for it. Moreover, the economic upside is just not there. Most MLS players make less than $100,000 — and the career is not that long. After tax and paying for Obamacare, these guys are looking at pretty lean lifestyles unless they become a Landon Donovan. After they lose their spot, they have to go into the real work world, where many may not have any bigger upside if they spent college taking courses that fit around their training schedules. Its not Europe, people! Fo rthe time being, this sport should be considered a participation sport here, and specialization to the exclusion of so many other things could likely be a mistake for many.

  3. Thom says:

    I hear this line of reasoning all of the time, and each time I feel like it makes far too many assumptions to be of any use to anyone.

    The first assertion is just crazy poor parenting: “This fear has forced kids into sports that often are not of their own choosing, and in many cases compels them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, not intrinsically motivating, nor are congruent with their actual athletic abilities.”

    Any parent that forces their child to participate in a sport that they don’t enjoy or they aren’t able to be successful in, is just as likely to be an awful parent regardless of whether a kid plays one or many sports.

    In many places around the world, regional preferences equal de-facto single-sport participation. That doesn’t mean these regions don’t produce both great athletes and avid fans of the locally favored sports.

    For me, both of my kids became single-sport athletes as soon as they demonstrated a preference and ability in their current sport. Why? Because I want them to do more than just play sports. They’ve done scouts (though not any more), they’re learning instruments, they have tons of school work, and they deserve a certain amount of unadulterated (no pun intended) kid-time. Both my wife and I work full time so if our kids played multiple sports they would have to be at the very basic rec level in order for use to carve out the time necessary to participate in just some of the other activities we feel are important to a well-rounded childhood.

    I just feel like there are many more important opportunities for hand-wringing angst than worrying about when is too soon to specialize in a particular sport.

    • Thom says:

      I forgot to point out dubious factoids such as this:

      “Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists”

      So … they other half of them are kids who participate in multiple sports or no sports at all?

      “In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of LoyolaUniversity found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!”

      Question, were the multi-sport participants playing at the same competitive level as the single sport athletes? Perhaps this doesn’t demonstrate the dangers associated with specialization as it shows the dangers of high-level competition?

      “88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child”

      Is that 88 percent of Division 1 athletes, or 88 percent of all divisions of collegiate athletics?

      While I appreciate the sentiment, I feel these numbers are skewed to substantiate your claims.

    • Thom, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I have personally met many great parents in every aspect of a kids life who have made some very poor decisions regarding their kids and their sports because people don’t listen to their doctors and physical therapists, and instead just keep up with the Joneses. I am not saying that you cannot be a single sport athlete and not get injured; just like you can be a life long smoker and not get lung cancer. It can happen. I am saying that all the scientific research points to a far higher injury rate, burnout rate, and potential lifelong consequences. I have searched for the science to refute that, I have interviewed experts, and I have not found it. If you are privy to this, please pass it on, I will write about that too.

      There are resources at the end of the article, and they all have additional resources listed in them. The studies I cite pass academic muster and are published in academic journals. This does not make them law, but it is compelling evidence.

      I have also coached for two decades, and have seen many talented athletes burnout, get injured, and quit because they went all in way too soon. I have seen others successfully make it, but their parents were every conscious of time needed for breaks, turned down games and events, invites to national camps, etc because of burnout fear.

      What I see from a soccer standpoint is that up to the age of 12, if a child is not getting ample free play hours (and many do not) then sampling other sports that have similar patterns in the game (basketball, lacrosse) actually can improve players not only physically, but mentally and psychologically. Our current system forces parents to choose only one, or become a multi specialist, and that does not benefit the game in our country. We should quit worrying so much about developing the next star, and develop the next generation of fans, coaches, referees, and soccer lovers. That would really take the game forward, and we would develop some stars along the way.

      As far as your disagreement with the studies I cite, science does not always speak to specifics, sometimes only generalities. Just because it was not so with your kids has little to do with it being right for the kid next door.

      That said, I am happy to agree to disagree. Everyone must choose the path that best fits their interpretation of the data, and no two paths are the same. Best of luck with your kids, it sounds like they are doing great.

  4. Messy says:

    Looks like the Academy folks need to read some of these studies. Their format mandates training for a 10-month season three or four times per week and playing roughly 36 matches over that period of time. By rule, the entire Academy program may not participate in high school programming. This means that 14 and 15 year olds in 9th grade cannot participate in soccer or other high school sports. Clearly, those kids are excluded from the opportunity to apply 50% of their time to other sports/athletic endeavors. Even the 16/17s can’t get the recommended 20%. Not surprising that USSDA’s model is inconsistent with hours of expert research — because that model is geared towards looking only at “the top soccer nations” and trying to copy them. Perhaps a more thoughtful approach by US Soccer would produce a better player pool. They lose kids, they lose clubs, they produce players whose arsenals of skills and abilities are limited because they have never had the opportunity to develop as more complete athletes, etc. USSDA’s model is nothing more than a copy cat to attempt to throw numbers at “top soccer nations” in the hope we can close the “performance gap.” A model designed to do that is poorly conceived. Time to read and innovate, USSDA!

    • WasteofTime says:

      Completely agree. But you can’t get away from the fact that the kids that are going on to play D1 soccer ARE the ones that have focused solely on soccer for the most part. That does not mean they are the best players. But they were the ones that had the time. money and blinders to focus on one sport. There are a few multisport athletes sprinkled in, but very few. Unfortunately, this is where we are and I don’t see it changing. The number of families that pour all their time and money in order for their kids to get no scholarship or partial scholarship to a school that they could have gotten more money for academic merit is completely insane. If coaches want the one sport athlete kids, so be it. That’s why soccer is not popular here, we have a bunch of sheep playing it.

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