How young is too young?

At what age is it acceptable to allow kids to play soccer year round? I had a parent ask me that question recently when we were discussing youth soccer injuries. Naturally I was curious how young her kids were, since she wants them playing travel soccer throughout the year. Her response: 8 and 6.

When I was growing up, I, like almost every kid I knew, played a different sport every season. Depending on the time of year, I competed on teams in soccer, basketball, baseball, and swimming. It wasn’t until I was in the fifth grade that I switched to playing on a travel soccer team that played together nine months a year. And in those three months away from soccer, I swam for a club team rather than finding another soccer team.

At some point in recent years, the mindsets of athletes, coaches, and parents have changed. Parents are pushing their kids to specialize in one sport at earlier ages than ever before. Baseball and soccer, in my opinion, seem to be the most common of these sports. With players as young as 8 to 10, there are club teams that play throughout the year to try to develop stars. Some parents will even push their kids to play on more than one team at a time.

From a competitive and even development standpoint, this sport-specific specialization seems to make sense. Why waste time playing sports that take time away from the one in which the young athlete could ultimately become a star? If your daughter is going to be the next Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan, then a season of basketball or swimming will certainly put her behind her friends, right?

Pushing kids to play only one sport earlier doesn’t guarantee success. I’ve talked to many professional athletes about this very topic, and there is much disagreement about whether it matters. Many professional athletes have told me that the skills that get athletes to the top levels are innate and not learned. For instance, one of the former great Atlanta Braves pitchers reportedly discourages kids from pitching too early, claiming that these young athletes either have or don’t have natural pitching ability. Starting earlier probably doesn’t make a difference.

Plus, the sheer numbers of young athletes make future professional sports unlikely. The Center for Kids First estimates that of the 20 million kids playing youth sports, only 1 in 4 become stars at the high school level. And other studies have shown that only 0.2% to 0.5% of high school athletes become professional athletes.

In my mind, early specialization can be harmful for two main reasons. First, doing one activity day after day, month after month, and year after year puts stress on the same bones and joints all the time. These kids’ bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons are still growing, and they can’t withstand the repetitive stresses and forces without rest. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, almost 50% of injuries in youth sports are overuse injuries. Varying sports allows kids to rest parts of their bodies worn out from one sport (like the shoulder and elbow in baseball) and let other body parts do the work (like the knee and ankle in soccer) for a few months.

Second, playing one sport year round likely takes a psychological toll on kids. Monotony, pressure from coaches and parents to win and excel personally, and even playing through pain can all contribute to burnout in young athletes. A study sponsored by the Youth Sports Institute at Michigan State University shows that 70-80% of athletes who begin playing a sport at an early age end up dropping out by age 15. Among the top ten reasons given for quitting are losing interest, not having fun, getting tired of playing, too much emphasis on winning, wanting to participate in other activities, and too much pressure.

So to answer the question of how young kids can play year round, I can’t give a specific age. I would strongly recommend that parents try to let their kids have fun in sports. Allow them to play several different sports when they are younger. If they truly gravitate toward one sport on their own (and not because the parents are pushing it), then the young athletes will probably enjoy it more and be less likely to burn out. I would rather see kids healthy and happy, even if they don’t become pros someday.

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2 Responses to How young is too young?

  1. […] As everyone was putting out their “best of 2011″ lists recently, I came across a post that goes right along with my thoughts on sports specialization. It brings up some good points.  Rather than rehash the post, I encourage you to read it and see how well it echos my thoughts.  It also gives us a few new points to think about in the sports specialization argument.  Check it out here  How young is too young to specialize in a sport? […]

  2. […] Beyond fun, parents and coaches should encourage youth athletes to play all sorts of sports so that their bodies can rest.  Young kids can play volleyball in the fall, soccer in the winter, and run track in the spring.  They’re still working out and being healthy, but not overtaxing the same muscle groups by playing the same sport year-round.  You can read more about this by reading Dr. Geier’s blog post, How Young Is Too Young?. […]

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david-headshot I am an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.

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