How early is too early for sports specialization?
By: Michael Connally, MD, Orthopedics, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – College Station
Kids are specializing in sports at increasingly earlier ages. There are more specialty teams and it’s not unheard of for kids to play sports year-round. While encouraging an active lifestyle is important, there are concerns with specializing your child too early.
Early sports specialization is intense training in one sport while excluding others prior to puberty around seventh grade, or training more than eight months a year.
Physically, a child’s body has not matured fully before puberty. Bones are still growing and joints still have large areas of cartilage that have not ossified. Tendon attachments are weaker than after puberty, and the increased repetitive stresses of early specialization can cause overuse tendon syndromes and fractures that would not occur at an older age.
Physical side effects are not the only drawback. There can also be negative effects on a child’s psyche and mental health. Specific training can lead to burnout and loss of interest in a sport. There are high rates of dropouts with early sport specialization.
There are no studies that show sports specialization prior to late adolescence has a positive impact. Young children who specialize in a single sport have been shown to have fewer age-appropriate sports skills than children who play multiple sports.
Narrowing focus to only one sport discourages children from free play and isolates young athletes from friends, which can interfere with their identity and neuromuscular development. Developing a healthy child requires time for friendships, schoolwork and other activities as well as sports.
Participation in multiple sports allows a child to develop naturally. It decreases the risk of mental stress and burnout while encouraging the positive effects of team play and competition. Studies have shown 97 percent of professional athletes and 88 percent of Olympians attribute their success to participation in multiple sports as children.
As a parent, you are an advocate for health first and foremost. Here are a few tips to help your child stay healthy and encourage them to enjoy sports:
- Avoid excessive time commitments.
- Encourage participation in different activities.
- Express the importance of having fun.
- Avoid specialization until after puberty.