Specialisation in youth sport can bamboozle the most grounded parents. Weigh up the benefits and dangers when deciding whether children should do one sport or many.

There seems to be an ever increasing push for children to specialise in sport and focus on just one at an earlier age. Especially if they seem to have talent. Youth sport is getting more serious too.

This is a follow up to my article on whether the 10,000 hours rule is true. I found that there are lots of qualities that go into turning a talented child into a champion. But I still wonder if there’s some science behind this enthusiasm to get kids focusing on one sport at a young age.

The push for children to specialise in youth sport has some benefits and drawbacks for parents to consider.

The benefits of doing many sports

By the time children are moving into their tween years, life can be busy. There’s school, social activities and for many of them, sport. There’s also an expectation that if they continue to play, they’ll do more hours of training.

If you have a child entering their teens and you’re not sure whether to let them focus on one sport or keep their hand in a couple, consider these benefits:

  • Kids who play more than one sport learn a variety of skills. There are lots of fundamental movement skills. You can’t develop these doing just one sport. These skills are so useful they’re built into talent identification processes. That’s why gymnasts often move into diving or aerial skiing and why volleyballers can be successful cyclists.
  • They’re less likely to get injured. Scott Sailor, from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, says kids are 70 percent more likely to get injured playing one sport year round. Overuse injuries are a major issue in youth sport today. They make up around half of all injuries kids get playing sport, according to researchers at the Ohio State University. The crux of the issue is that kids who specialise too early run the risk of overdoing it.
  • They have more options. The same research from Ohio State University suggests kids who play a variety of sports be more active adults. They can switch to other sports if they lose interest in one and are less likely to feel the need to win at all costs. No one can know for sure if a child is going to be a star. Being the under 10 champion might be the career highlight for some. And injury can derail any career. So having a few other interests is good for their physical development and mental health.
  • They are more likely to find playing sport fun. 70 percent of kids quit before they turn 13, according to Scott Sailor. For kids who only do one sport, their participation can feel more like a job than a pastime. There needs to be an emphasis on sport remains fun regardless of how many hours they train.
  • They are less likely to burn out. With other sporting avenues in play, kids are less likely to feel overwhelmed. Training for 15 plus hours in one sport can be isolating. Few kids can cope with that and stay motivated to reach elite levels.

Specialising too early can mean kids miss out on developing a stack of fundamental skills, building up sport-specific skills instead. That’s great if they stick with that sport, but if they decide they’ve had enough of it, they may drop out of sport all together.

If you do get an offer for your child to specialise, keep these guidelines from the American Association of Pediatrics in mind:

  • Kids shouldn’t do one sport for more than five days a week
  • They need to have a rest day every week to let the body recover and that day should be restful, not filled with another sport
  • The most successful young athletes have two or three months within the year for strength and conditioning activities

There’s nothing worse than watching a child grapple with the idea that they feel trapped in a sport because they are good at it, but no longer love it. Specialisation shouldn’t be something that kids, parents or coaches rush into.

When it’s good for kids to stick to one sport

There are some sports that need athletes to hit their best in their late teens or early adulthood. Women’s gymnastics, diving and figure skating all need kids to commit early so they can develop skills for success.

But if you’re child isn’t playing one of those sports, or isn’t playing in that league, then the push to specialise might just rob them of some of the richness of childhood.

David Gould wrote in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance that the optimal time to start specialising for most young athletes is around 13 to 15 years of age.

Having watch kids specialising in swimming, athletics, football and field hockey far earlier, we need to be mindful of what we let our kids commit to. As parents, we should be the ones with our kids’ best interests in mind.

What do you think? Do you lean towards specialisation in one sport, or keeping them involved in many sports for as long as they can? I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section.

References for articles I used in research:
  • The research from the Ohio State University was undertaken by Mehran Mostifavifar, Thomas Best and Greg Myer and published in “Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems?”, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012.
  • Daniel Gould wrote “Early Sports Specialisation: A Psychological Perspective” in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance in 2010, volume 81.
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