One major difference between young athletes today and 10 or 20 years ago is that kids today play one sport year-round at a very early age. When I was young, I played soccer in the spring and fall, swam on a club team in the summer and played basketball in the winter. I didn’t start playing on a travel soccer team until I was in the sixth grade. Now kids often choose sport specialization and start playing on competitive teams in a single sport much earlier.
Is this trend towards earlier single sport specialization good for children?
Parents and coaches often push kids to play one sport all year without breaks to play on more elite teams. They might assume that their kids will fall behind if they take a season off. Or they might want to have the children play on teams that practice and compete every day so the kids can earn college scholarships one day.
Burnout and overuse injuries
That pressure to play year-round and compete at higher and higher levels can lead to burnout and overuse injuries. Plus there’s evidence in many sports that playing only one sport at a young age does not improve the child’s chances of excelling as he or she gets older.
One tip to decrease the chances of burnout and overuse injuries if the family does choose to have the child play one sport starting a young age would be to limit the amount of training. A good rule of thumb is to keep the number of hours competing and practicing each week lower than his or her age and certainly below 16 hours per week.
Strength and conditioning for kids
Kids who do specialize in sports should still perform strength and conditioning training to develop physical abilities outside of what they use in their sports. Learning more diverse motor skills might make them better overall athletes and could decrease their injury risk as they get older.
All kids, for that matter, should perform regular neuromuscular training. These basic strength and conditioning routines can be added to physical education classes at school. That training could help kids perform in their chosen sports as they get older. It also could help provide physical activity generally. With obesity rates rising, we need kids getting more exercise. The strength and conditioning programs could help.
Diversity of sports
Finally, parents should strongly consider allowing their children to play a variety of sports growing up. These kids will discover sports that really appeal to them. They will also develop motor skills that will help them in their future athletic careers and possibly decrease their injury risk. If they can learn to enjoy sports and avoid burnout and overuse injuries, they will more likely maintain active lifestyles as they become adults.
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes. Sports Health. Published online Oct 30, 2015.