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Beware: This will be controversial. Parents and young athletes are picking one sport, all year around, way too early and way too often with hopes of increasing future success. This article will discuss the dangers of specializing in sports, the reasons people do it, and when it is the appropriate time to specialize. 

A high number of studies suggest that early specialization can have "significant negative consequences on the development of an athlete over time.” [1]

1.    Injury

Each year in the U.S. around 35 million children and teenagers participate in sports. Sports are the leading cause of injuries for this age group. However, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one-half of all injuries is preventable. Most of these injuries are from overuse. Overuse injuries develop slowly over time due to repetitive stress on tendons, muscles, bones or joints. Over-exercising children, before they have reached skeletal maturity, can have severe long-term consequences. Intense forces or high volume muscle contractions on an immature skeleton can result in severe injury, such as an avulsion fracture of a growth plate. Other common over-use injuries may include: pain in the shoulders, elbow, back, hips, or stress fractures, shin splints, Osgood-Schlatter disease, arthritis, Sever’s disease, and the list goes on. 

Athletes who specialize in one sport are 70%-93% more likely to be injured than children who play multiple sports.

2.    Burn Out

USC's Head Track Coach say, “the fire that the athlete once had in their sport is gone by the time they get to me. The athlete has been competing since they were 5 and now at 18 that fire is nothing more than a pilot light I am desperately trying to keep lit.” Some of the lucky ones eventually make it to the Division 1 School, only to be so tired and bored of the activity they find the sport no longer enjoyable. There is nothing new, fun, or different. It is the same old thing. Even worse, they do not know how to do anything else. 

3.    The Myth of the Full Ride Scholarship

Every year, at least one parent of one of my athletes will tell me that their little athlete has to get an athletic scholarship. My first response is, “No, they do not.” Now, let me say, “Why?” 
Consider this:
-    Only 1% of all athletes in high school sports will receive an athletic scholarship.
-    The money is smaller than you think. An average scholarship is $8,000-$10,000 and only 4 sports give “full-rides” (Football, Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Women’s Volleyball).
-    Most scholarships are not guaranteed. They must be renewed each year. If an athlete gets hurt, no more scholarship. The coach literally will get fired if they do not produce. They will not keep you out of the goodness of their hearts. Sadly, it is a business. 
-    Most coaches do not know who you are and don’t care. They will not come find you. You need to email them, call them, visit their school, visit a camp they are at. Market yourself and don’t wait for them to knock on your door.

If a parent communicates to their son or daughter plays their sport for future money in a college scholarship, the parent’s love has just become performance based. If the athlete performs well, they get your love, but what if they perform poorly. Will they be chastised in the car on the way home? Chances are, any scholarship for sport is more about the parent than it is about the athlete. Ever heard this from a parent: “Did you hear that my son has a full ride to USC?” 
If you want a scholarship, study!  There is more money in academic scholarships than sports. 

4. Decrease in Future Athletic Endeavors

I have young kids, and I spend time thinking about what activities to put them into that would be most beneficial to them as an overall athlete, not one particular sports star. Lately, I have seen much fruit in gymnastics at their young ages. It is fun for them, and they can push themselves based on their individual athletic ability. They now jump, roll, run, and swing on everything in our house and neighborhood. Furthermore, a Harvard Research study has shown that Gymnastics will help children succeed in school. CLICK HERE for the article

4.    Decrease in Good Role Models

At alarming rates, parents are allowing their kids to go through awful coaching experiences with negative elements and environments because that coach is “good” or “successful.” Why put your child through something so horrifying when you would never put up with it if it happened to you? Imagine your boss yelling at you, saying things like “you suck,” “you are worthless,” or use foul language with humiliating jokes while embarrassing you in front of your peers.  This is not the way it works in real life, and it is not the way sports should work either.  Give your athlete a wide range of good coaches. Many mentors can help shape them into good people. Don’t limit the amount of good mentoring from a variety of people. 

5.    Loss of Family Unity 

Families no longer eat meals together because of practices and tournaments on the weekends. Church is often missed on Sundays because of the game that cannot be missed. The only friends these athletes have is on the team they are with all year-round doing only one thing.  The choices we make reveal what is important to us. Is church, family dinner, family vacation, playing in the neighborhood, less important than the tournament? When was the last time you played catch with your son?  Alternatively, is the coach the only one doing it?  Is the family teaching proper values or is the team teaching them their values? The parent watching in the stands should not and does not count as family unity.  Make it a priority to spend time with your family rather than having the team become your child’s family. 

6.    Emotional Scaring 

Kirk Anderson, Director of Coaching Education for the US Tennis Association, has said that specialization in sports is rarely the kid’s choice. In many cases, specialization compels them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, not intrinsically motivating, nor are congruent with their actual athletic abilities. This path fails to consider many of the physical, emotional and social costs to children who only play one sport. As a result, we are seeing a large number of “mentors” in sports morally fail in life as they search for the reason of existence. Think Tiger Woods and Todd Marinovich. 

Why Parents Allow or Force Specialization: 

1.    We are looking for an edge. 

“The must be a secret formula that no one knows. If I get the right coach, the right team, live in the right area, go to the right school and if I do the right training all the time I have an advantage over everyone else. I must remember I am competing against everyone in this sport in America trying to get a scholarship.”  

2.    We believe that more is better.

“The harder I work the better chance I have of success. More is better (more teams, more practices, more intense and competitive games) and earlier (travel teams in 1st grade) is somehow better.” Tiger Woods in an interview once said that he was not allowed to eat dinner until he hit 1,000 balls every night.

3.    We believe it is a matter of competitive survival.

“I was not that good of an athlete when I was young. However, my little one will be better than me. They will have everything I always wanted and never got because I was not focused on the end goal. I was not focused on the right sport. Regardless of genetics, my son will look and play like Lebron James!”

The Right Time to Specialize:

A chart recently went viral on the Internet showing that 42 of the 47 athletes Coach Urban Meyer has recruited to Ohio State played multiple sports in high school. In fact, Coach Meyer even said some of the first questions he asked a recruited athlete is what they have accomplished in other sports. 

With that said, we specialize our athletes because there is value in specialization. 

16+ years of age or sophomore year are the best time to specialize an athlete. Many different experiences in other sports will guide them in choosing what they will be passionate about. Parents should not be choosing the sport their kid plays, especially when the kid has communicated that they do not like it.  Moreover, when you do specialize be sure it is with the right coach that will mentor and train the athlete as an athlete. On our track team, we spend much time doing activities that foster a good athlete, not just a good sprinter (Ultimate Frisbee is a fun one). 

Fight for our kids to stay kids. Give them a childhood and help sports stay what they are supposed to be…fun!

[1] Sagas M. What does the science say about athletic development in children. Research Brief, University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program's Project Play. September 13, 2013 (accessed at http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/At...).