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RAISING CHAMPIONS ? LET KIDS EXPLORE : THE CASE OF EARLY SPECIALIZATION

two kids playing football in a field

Many parents dream of their child becoming a successful athlete, envisioning a path where dedication to one sport from a young age leads to excellence. This vision often drives the choice to specialize early, believing that focused practice and early mastery will give their child a competitive edge. The thought process behind this is rooted in the desire to see their children succeed, thinking that the sooner they start, the better they will become. However, recent research suggests a different approach might be more beneficial. Early  specialization in youth sports, focusing on one sport year-round at a young age can be detrimental for several reasons.


In the last five years, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the Academy of Paediatrics, and the International Olympic Committee have published research supporting the position that children should sample multiple sports rather than picking one too early.  They have found, specialising in one sport and only one sport can increase the risk of overuse injuries and raise the potential for burnout. It also limits their exposure to diverse experiences that can benefit them as they develop as athletes and adults. This may limit opportunities for interpersonal growth, behavioural development, and gradual independence.


Reasons why kids should play multiple sports

A. Top 3 Reasons


1. It's what top athletes do (88% of Division I NCAA athletes played multiple sports as kids)


2. Fewer serious injuries (athletes who play multiple sports have an average of 22% less sports injuries)


3. Fewer Regrets and Reduced Burnout (Studies show that athletes who specialize early are more likely to experience burnout, regret focusing on one sport and ultimately quit altogether.) This can be due to factors like,


– Stress

– Anxiety / Performance pressure

– Social isolation


Apart from these , other reasons include,


B. Risk of Injury


Repetitive motions from constant training in a single sport can stress growing muscles and joints, leading to overuse injuries. A study by the National Athletic Trainers' Association suggests that delaying specialization until later in adolescence could significantly reduce these risks. Overuse injuries may happen gradually over time, but can have a long term effect on game, health and quality of life. Young athletes who consistently train in one sport risk overuse injuries because their bodies don't have enough time to recover properly between resting and playing. This eventually leads to paediatric trauma and may even require a surgery sometimes.


Statistics Show Overuse Injuries Affect Many Young Athletes between the ages 5 to 14


Pie chart showing overuse injuries across various sports

C. Burnout and Decreased Motivation


The pressure and intense training associated with early specialization can take the fun out of the sport. Constant training, drills, competitions and expectations can feel overwhelming over a period of time. This can lead to burnout and a decreased desire to participate altogether. The beauty of a sport lies in the journey, the process of learning, improving and experiencing the thrill of competition. Early specialization often prioritizes results over the journey. Constantly trying to focus on winning trophies or achieving specific goals rather than having a joy of simply playing the game and developing skills is what kills the joy of play itself.


D. Hindering Overall Athletic Development

 

Focusing on one sport limits exposure to developing a well-rounded skillset, how?


Limited Movement Patterns: Specific training emphasizes specific movements. In such cases these young kids might miss out on developing other crucial movement patterns valuable not only in other sports but also for overall physical literacy and injury prevention.


● Reduced Coordination: Early specialization can lead to muscle memory specific to one sport. This can make it harder to pick up new skills later or adapt to different situations on the playing field.


● Missed Foundational Skills: Many sports share basic foundational skills like running, jumping, and core strength. As an example, let’s say you are focusing solely on one discipline; gymnastics for instance, you might miss out on building a strong base that could benefit you in any sport you choose later. On other hand participating in various sports can improve your overall co-ordination, movement patterns and athleticism, which can benefit your performance in any chosen sport later.


E. Finding the Right Sport


1. Early specialization can limit a child's opportunity to discover the sport they truly enjoy and excel at. Encouraging participation in various sports during childhood allows them to: -


● Develop a broader movement vocabulary, making them more adaptable and well-rounded.


● Build a strong foundation that benefits any sport they choose later.


● Discover hidden talents and passions they might not have known existed. Studies have shown that many successful athletes didn't specialize until later in their teens.


2. Matching Personality and Play Style: Not all are built for the same sports. Some thrive in team environments, while others prefer individual pursuits. Trying out various options can help you discover activities that align well with your personality and play style.


3. Building a Well-Rounded Athlete: Each sport offers unique challenges and requires different skills. Basketball hones hand-eye coordination, swimming builds endurance, and karate teaches discipline. Participating in various sports equips you with a diverse skillset that can benefit you in any chosen sport later.


4. Preventing Early Burnout: Engaging in multiple sports keeps the experience diverse and makes young children enthusiastic. You can switch gears between sports, preventing monotony and maintaining motivation to participate in physical activity.


Two team of athletes playing  kabaddi sport


What could be the key takeaways ?


● Maintain the Fun Factor: By playing various sports, you can experience the joy of discovery and avoid getting stuck in a repetitive routine.


● Manage Pressure: Participating in multiple activities helps to learn how to handle the healthy competition and set realistic goals.


● Focus on the Journey: One can and should appreciate the process of learning, developing skills, and celebrating small victories.


● Keep the Spark Alive: Maintaining a love for sports fosters a lifelong commitment to physical activity and well-being.


 Resources :


1. The National Strength and Conditioning Association : longer-term athletic development (LTAD) model [nsca.com]

2. The Case Against Early Sports Specialisation by Dr. Mark Cullen, Wentworth Health Partners Seacoast Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine

3. Burnout in Youth Sports: Why Early Specialization is Not So Special by UAB National Alumni Society

4. Athlete pathways and development [clearinghouseforsport.gov.au]

5. The American Academy of Paediatrics : Early specialization and recommendations of activities for young athletes ● Indian Council of Child Welfare [iccwtn.org]



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