Why Early Sport Specialization Isn't Special

A kid will go to any length, sacrifice everything, and put in a countless hours trying to be the best.

Wait… A kid would never do that.

Parents will go to any length, sacrifice everything, and put in countless hours trying to get their kid to be the best.

That’s more truthful.

Early sport specialization has climbed to the forefront of youth athletic development. Is specializing at a young age helping a kid develop to their highest potential? Almost always, the answer is no. If it’s detrimental to the development of a young athlete, then why is it becoming more prevalent?

1)   Parents want their kid to be the best

2)   Parents want their kid to receive a college scholarship

3)   Parents don’t want their kid to “fall behind”

Because of these mindsets, you’re beginning to see children fall on the extreme ends of the “too much exercise vs. too little exercise” spectrum. You either see the kid who plays on three different “elite” travel teams or the kid who plays 30 hours of Xbox a week. The answer to long-term athletic success is likely somewhere in the middle. Read below to learn why early specialization isn’t special at all, and why you may be doing your kid a huge disservice by not providing them with opportunities to learn and thrive in a variety of sporting environments.

You’re Not Giving Your Child Enough Movement Variability

Kids can handle a lot of exercise volume. Think back to the summers when you were younger. You could run around and play all day without getting tired and could then turn around and do the same thing the next day. Too much is rarely the problem for a kid. The problem is too much of the same. Repetitive movements all year long will affect your kid’s development on both a musculoskeletal and neurological level.

Children need to be exposed a variety of movements. They must learn to move in all planes of motion, develop stability in their joints at different angles, move at different velocities, and develop awareness of their body in space. Not allowing kids to do so will make them prone to overuse injuries at the joints used most during their sport, and it will increase the likelihood of injury due to compensatory patterns because of their lack of movement diversity. Neurological connections of those repetitive movements become strong and fast, potentially making them perfect their craft sooner, but leaves them susceptible to injury when challenged to use connections that aren’t as strong. Using baseball as an example, we’re seeing more UCL injuries, humeral stress fractures, and spondylolisthesis, likely from kids throwing and hitting year-round. In hockey, you’ll see more hip impingement, soccer more adductor and quad strains, and basketball more knee and ankle injuries. You get the point.

You’re Not Giving Your Child Enough Mental Variability

Studies have shown that a way to prevent burnout, mitigate injury, and improve performance is to avoid early specialization in children. In Tudor Bompa’s book From Childhood to Champion Athlete, he talks about longitudinal studies that show children who specialize early will peak early. They’ll be better than their peers in middle school and early high school, but their performance will be more inconsistent, injuries more common, and these athletes will be more likely to drop out of their sport by age 18. Children who waited until adolescence to specialize had more consistent performances, were less likely to experience injuries, and had more longevity in their spot. Psychological burnout is a real thing. If you’re a parent reading this, ask yourself how long you’ve worked at your current job? Do you find it monotonous? Are you sick of doing the same thing every day? It’s the same for a high school baseball player who has been playing 80 plus games a year since he was twelve years old.

Your Child is Missing Opportunities to Be Creative

The best place for a kid to grow and develop their athletic and social skills is the backyard. Specialization means structure and adult intervention. This is needed, but not in the doses a specialized athlete receives. Playing with friends in the backyard has many benefits that help a kid excel well beyond the athletic field or court. Below are just a few examples:

  • Be creative and make up games and rules
  • Learn to problem solve
  • Run into conflict and have to talk with peers to resolve it
  • Play a variety of games—likely involving throwing, running, jumping, climbing, and kicking—that will translate well to organized sports.

In Summary

The long-term youth athletic development model in the United States is flawed. Why? Maybe because of the pressure on parents who want their kid to succeed. Maybe because of the pressure a kid feels to succeed. Maybe because of sports advertising’s tendency to push kids towards camps and showcases. Regardless, you owe it to the physical, mental, and emotional health of your kid to expose them to a variety of sports at a young age. And when it comes time to specialize, if that’s what your kid wants, they’ll be more prepared to handle the annual demands of playing a single sport.