Age of Specialization: One Sport Vs. Multisports
By Detavius Mason
Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Lebron James, Alex Rodriguez. When these names are brought up, a few things come to mind: excellence, transcendent talent, winning, but the thought of them specializing in one sport should not. Kobe & Federer were soccer players, Brady played baseball, Lebron played football and A-Rod played basketball, football and soccer. It’s kind of strange to think that each of these Future Hall of Famers in their respective sports didn’t spend every waking moment of their life dedicated to their chosen profession. Sure you have the story of Tiger Woods who was placed on the Mike Douglas Show to putt against Bob Hope at the ripe old age of 2. Or tennis great Andre Agassi who sometimes practiced with pro tennis players at the age of 5! But you never hear from the other side of the fence. What about the many athletes who specialize at a young age, only to fall short of their lofty ambitions. Wondrous success stories like Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi are aberrations, but as long as there are wealth and fame associated with professional athletes, people will attempt to make their child the next Tiger Woods. But the question you must ask yourself is “Is it really worth it?”
Since the sporting universe has grown in popularity & exposure, the idea of creating the perfect athlete has led to many studies of specialization. From journal articles to full fledged books, areas of interest throughout the 20+ years of research include the perfect age to specialize in one sport, overuse injuries in the young athlete, who should specialize in a particular sport, and whether or not specialization is needed for college preparation. They all have one central theme, specializing in one sport at a young age could have dire consequences on your body. Youth who are coerced into specializing in a sport by family or coaches are at an even greater risk. According to SAFE KIDS USA, children ages 5-13, our youth, account for nearly 40% of all sports related injuries.
Many athletes are being faced with the option of specializing in one sport or being looked at as not being dedicated to their particular sport. Gone are the months known as the off-season and just “playing out in the backyard,” now athletes go from their school team, to their traveling AAU team, and maybe even on to a community team. More and more, kids are not given the option to participate in another sport due to nothing more then a lack of time. This repetitive amount of stress on the mind and body can cause physical & psychological burnouts, injuries related to overuse, overtraining, and maybe even psychological problems related to failure. A burnout is defined by sport psychologists as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment.” Injuries related to overuse are a major concern for younger athletes. Participating in the same sport stresses the same bones, joints, and muscles. With limited rest & recovery time the body begins to break down, fatigue and become more susceptible to injuries. Overuse injuries account for 50% of the amount of total injuries in middle and high school athletes. Overtraining is the result of the strain & repetitious nature of multiple practices without the proper rest. It could be something that lasts a day or two or something that lasts for half the season. Some psychological problems related to specialization include loss of focus, loss of interest in a sport, increased amount stress that’s intertwined in sport, depression caused by failing and emotional fatigue. These areas of concern are becoming the norm for today’s athlete which is reiterated in the number of youth injuries and injuries that were previously only seen in adults.
What would you do if your son was 6’6 at the age of 13? Would you force them to play a sport that put them at a disadvantage or involve them in a sport that could use their great height to their advantage like basketball? Or maybe they have a long torso, a shorter lower body, and big feet; they would be best suited for swimming sports. While none of these traits necessarily mean future success, it would be reasonable for one to try and specialize them in a particular sport. If one chooses the one sport specialization route, the two most important things for a parent/coach to remember is the safety of the child comes first and to never make the sport feel like a job, always keep it fun. Another significant task in specializing in one sport is to protect the athlete and their health. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, signs of sport overload include chronic injuries, illnesses, weight loss, sleep disturbances, and falling grades in school.
Specialization has been a hot topic of discussion for many years. As with any hot topic, many studies have been done to support or refute the practice of specializing in one sport. All of the studies I have read all point to one thing: specializing in one sport at a young age, even excelling at the sport at a young age, does not equate to future success. That means a child can master bending it like Beckham at the age of 3, win every MVP trophy for each team he’s on, and even dominate one of the many traveling AAU soccer teams; it does not mean that he will have future success as a soccer player. The only thing that has been accomplished in that scenario of soccer specialization is that 1.) The child has lost the opportunity to discover other talents 2.) The years of pounding on his body could result in future injuries or 3.) The child might burnout & tire of the sport. It is also of note one study whose conclusion was that kids do not have to be one sport specific to compete at the collegiate level. Wow, a study of collegiate athletes that shows that early specialization is not needed and is no guarantee for future success. Who would have ever guessed?
So allow your child to participate in multiple sports. That way he or she can become adept to using a multitude of muscles and puts less stress on the muscles and bones they use in their primary sport. Participating in multiple sports also allows them to see if they are talented in another sport, less stress on the body, overall athleticism increases, gain more friends & social interaction, and there is less pressure to be perfect.
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