By Curtis Monin, SPT
It seems that within the past 10 years, professional sports stars have become increasingly more recognizable and followed than ever before. The Project Play study has shown that 56.6% of all American children are involved in some sort of organized sport activity. With a steady rise of children playing sports, the competition for becoming the best and making it into professional leagues has never been a more challenging task. This increased competition and desire for success has made the majority of children shift their focus from playing multiple sports that they enjoy, to just focusing on one sport, or having sport specialization. This blog will go into the differences of sport specialization and sport diversification among youth athletes and why the latter may be the better option for your children!
What is Sport Specialization?
Sports specialization is defined as “intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.” This belief follows the idea that if a child devotes a full time commitment into one sport, they will develop and increase their skill levels of that specific sport at a much quicker rate than someone who doesn’t. Having a higher skill level and knowledge of a certain singular sport, increases the child’s chances of performing better than their peers, thus having a larger likelihood of becoming a successful athlete later in life. This is exactly why this school of thought has become so attractive to young athletes and soccer moms alike, however, just about with anything in life, it also has its downfalls. In order to develop their skills to an elite level, children who specialize in one sport for the means of success often have a very high training volume year round which includes rigorous amounts of repetition. This large amount of training can affect children differently than adults simply because the youngsters are still growing. The bodies of developing children are constantly changing, so a certain movement one month may have totally different stresses on the body than the next month. In young athletes, growth cartilage is present at the growth plate as well as the musculotendinous insertion. Growth cartilage is known to be vulnerable to the stress of repeated microtraumas. Injuries like Osgood Schlatter’s Disease of the knee and “Little Leaguers Elbow” are just a few examples of overused injuries within youth athletes that can bring on significant discomfort. Another problem of specialization for younger children early in their development can be the potential mental fatigue a child can face. This can be due to the constant high demands for improvement, success or simply being too active. With this mental fatigue, a child may feel burned out and lose motivation to continue on with performing their sport. Now on to sport diversification!
What is Sport Diversification?
Sport Diversification is the school of thought that a child should be involved in as many different sports as they would like throughout their younger years. In early development of their athletic prowess, children exposed to multiple sports allow them to have a higher drive for the gratification of the games themselves rather than a pure focus on training. There is a belief that children who have diversity with the sports they participate in can have a potential physical and cognitive crossover effect between activities. It’s that different sports require different movement patterns, which can allow for children to challenge their minds and brains to numerous unique stimuli that one specific sport simply cannot offer. For example, the power developed from skating in hockey may be applied to increasing the force behind a kick of a soccer ball. Additionally, having high eye tracking abilities from tennis may transfer into following the ball in baseball. Lastly, when children participate in numerous different sports, it allows them to have multiple options to fall back on if they were to ever lose interest in one of the sports, thus improving their chances of continuing to play sports into adolescence.
It may seem tempting for both the young athletes and their parents alike to push the idea of sports specialization in order to achieve greatness, however it is shown that sports diversification as much more long term benefits and fewer negatives. Young athletes should highly consider sports diversification if they would like to participate in sports and have lower chances of injury, lower chances of losing overall interest, and have higher chances of developing multiple, last skills that specializing in one sport can’t contribute.
-The Aspen Institute, Project Play, 2016
-Difiori, J., Benjamin, H., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G., & Luke, A (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 24(1):3-20.
-Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257. doi:10.1177/1941738112464626.
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-Childhood Sports Participation and Adolescent Sport Profile
François Gallant, Jennifer L. O’Loughlin, Jennifer Brunet, Catherine M. Sabiston, Mathieu Bélanger
Pediatrics Nov 2017, e20171449; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-1449