Apr 29

Consequences of Early Specialization in Children and Youth Sports – Part 3B

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In support of the previous discussion, I have added an article by Glen Mulcahy. *The article has been modified somewhat for this Newsletter.*Glen Mulcahy is the Founder and CEO of Paradigm Sports; and Executive Director, For the Love of the Game. He is a Hockey Canada NCCP Facilitator & Regional Evaluation Coordinator for BC Hockey

It’s Only a Game, Mom!

These days, Fun in youth sports is rapidly fading as dreams of children are replaced by the ambitions of overzealous adults. As the sport system has become increasingly more ‘adultified’ (parent volunteers, parent organizers, etc.), the number of children playing sports has steadily decreased. Different sport associations across the country (Canada) are losing young athletes; for example, British Columbia Soccer enrolment decreased seven percent from last year. A recent study by the Aspen Institute (Washington, DC) reports a 23.5-percent drop in US players ages 6-12 over a five-year period.

The trend towards early single-sports specialization – defined as nine months or more of a single sport to the exclusion of others – has been named as the main cause. While other activities, like video games or the rise of alternative, non-traditional sports, have also contributed to the decline, early specialization is mostly the reason for overuse injuries, emotional and psychological damage, and burnout. ‘Adultification’ ignores the fact that sport is supposed to serve the young, says North Vancouver’s Matt Young, a fitness company innovator, who was recently tapped by the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce an athlete development model. According to Young, “sports are supposed to be a dress rehearsal for life, for winning, losing, feedback, role modeling, responsibility, victory, and defeat. It is supposed to be about that athlete’s journey. It has turned into the aggressive pursuit of parents, number of ‘wins’ coaches produce, while the focus is not on the kids.”

Early Start – Early Finish Dilemma

Children’s physical literacy begins at an early discovery stage with skills like moving, falling, running, throwing, and jumping. Then fundamental movement skills such as hitting, catching, agility, and striking should be taught in elementary school years before learning skills and drills during the 10-12-age range. It is during this later stage that the drop in enrollment begins with readily available and damning data. ‘Early specialization’ has negative impacts on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of athletes, both in the short and long term. The ‘driving force’ is not the child dreaming of being the next superstar – it is the parents’ vicarious ambitions that allegedly this is the only path to get to professional or post-secondary levels, a prevailing attitude which seems to be implanted into the public’s psyche! However, the data shows this pursuit does more harm than good. 

Six percent of high school athletes move on to play in college. Maybe two percent of those go on to the professional level. If asked, however, 99 percent of parents think their child represents that very two percent. On the quantifiable side, from a physiological and psychological level, we’re damaging the children. The evidence shows that overuse injuries on the physical and physiological level are rampant. Female soccer players, some as young as 10 years old, have suffered severe knee injuries such as torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL). Since 2002, there has been a 400 percent increase in those injuries in girls, aged 10-17 in North America. In youth baseball across North America, 57 percent of Tommy John surgeries – once nearly exclusive used in the ranks of professional pitchers – are performed on players aged 15-19 (Tommy John surgery is named after the MLB pitcher of the same name, who was the first to undergo an experimental treatment where the ligament in the elbow of the affected arm is replaced with a tendon from the forearm).

The Oakland Children’s Hospital surveyed 200 NBA players, and found that those who were single-sport athletes, starting in Grade 8 were injured at a rate 10 times higher than those who were multi-sport athletes, and had shorter playing careers. 

“Parents are aspiring for their kids to reach that really, really high plateau, when in actually they should be happy to watch them play, and encouraging them to try as many sports as they can,” said Delta’s Glen Mulcahy, who started Paradigm Sports, a resource for coaches and parents, about five years ago. Playing multiple sports provides a physical literacy, a base of fundamental movement that crosses sports and prevents overuse injuries when the body is still too young to handle those repetitive motions.”

“There’s a massive physical toll on young bodies, and one of the most tragic syndromes is, kids don’t go play in the park anymore; they don’t fall out of trees; they don’t have this multi-movement childhood,” said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project. “Experts tell you if you teach people to move correctly first – you make them athletes first – then later on the sports-specific skills, that’s the best way to prevent injuries and give people the best chance to be successful.”

Under-6 Travel Soccer isn’t the Place to Start

Numerous athletes, parents and health-care professionals were contacted for this article. All were more than willing to discuss their experiences but the stigma attached to the ‘meat grinder’ they had endured made them hesitant to be identified publicly, expressing the sentiment that it was akin to voting for a politician, who turned his back on the platform that had got him elected. It was, in short, embarrassing to be confronted with their own mistakes – especially if they were still in the system. One local physiotherapist at a large athlete development centre has a 14-year-old in elite sports, who trains nearly the entire year round, obsessing over the data and information that comes with wearable technology. “These kids aren’t taking time off. It’s recommended that they take a big chunk of time off from their primary sport every year. I have one child in a high-level sport, and she takes one week in the fall, and two weeks in August. That is it! Athletes are not encouraged to take time off!”

“It’s great to see [her] learn through the experience, but I wish [she’d] done something different. She’s quite isolated, especially when she’s injured, because she’s not going to her social events. I’m lucky I have two kids. I get to do it differently the second time.” The athletes most prized by the NCAA are the ones who have the ‘complete package.’ UCLA baseball coach John Savage said: “We like them cross-trained. Stick with multiple sports as long as you possibly can, and people are going to see your tools. Stick with one sport long enough, and people are going to see your scars.”

It’s a Multi-dollar Industry

So why do parents bury their heads in the sand? The answer is marketing according to the experts, as youth sport was a $7-billion industry in 2014. Last year, it cracked the $15-billion mark. As illustrated in January’s Vancouver Province feature “The Money Pit: Why Professionalization of Youth Sports is Worrisome,” the skyrocketing costs of youth sports are largely due to the cottage industries that have sprung up around it, from pricey sports academies to year-round leagues or specialized training and coaches. “The business of sport has become big, and it feeds off the primary human motivators: fear and greed,” said Matt Young. “Every parent has a fear of missing out.” Dr. Tommy John, son of the former Major League pitcher who made history by being the first to undergo the experimental tendon surgery, has written a book called Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sport Parent’s Survival Guide. He also blames the industries that are pushing the professionalization of youth sports to their own financial benefit. “It’s billions of dollars that people are gaining putting out a message that states, ‘your son or daughter must compete year-round, compete early on, [and] specialize early on,” he said. “It’s a fear campaign coming at parents who only want the best for their kid. Their biggest fault is they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the best. Unfortunately, they don’t understand it’s not the appropriate way a human develops, nor is it the healthiest manner of going about creating the best athlete possible.

“So not only are we having to ‘rehab’ them orthopedically, they’re also seeking psychiatric care for anxiety, attention deficit and depression that stems from them trying to overachieve early on before they’re even able to.” “It could very well be that the landscape is shifting in sport, and with that we also need to think about ways we conceptualize, account for, and recognize sport as well as participation.

Parents need to encourage their children to try multiple sports and activities to become well-rounded people instead of narrowly focused athletes, says Mulcahy. “It’s really simple, and it will sound like an oxymoron, but kids play sports for one reason: to have Fun. They’re quitting because it is no longer Fun,” he said. “If we can reintroduce free play in our youth sports, even if it’s unstructured, as to where they play for the sake of playing and not for the sake of competing, that itself will make it Fun again for kids.

“We’re not only depriving them of an opportunity to play other sports and activities, but what about other activities like band, art, drama, music, computer science, reading – all of that ‘stuff’ that should help them become well-rounded people? If they specialize, they don’t have the time for any of it. We’re making them little robots, really early, and it’s no wonder they burn out really fast.”


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Dr. Jürgen Weineck, PhD, Dr. Med., Emeritus. Sport Institute for Sport Science and Sport. University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.








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