Youth Sports Specialization – Part 1 of 3

Specialization in youth sports has become mainstream in America and the debate will rage on for years regarding the upside and downside of the trend. After reading a weekly series written on this topic in the San Francisco Chronicle, article here, I was not surprised to have all of my concerns comprehensively confirmed. Foremost, orthopedic injuries are at all-time highs due to the overuse of developing joints. For example, as stated in the article linked above, “There has been a five-fold increase since 2000 in the number of serious elbow and shoulder injuries among youth baseball and softball players, according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.” The overuse injuries are found in all sports, whatever the specialization might be – tennis, swimming, soccer, volleyball, etc. A developing body with immature tendons, ligaments and muscle tissue is not adequately equipped to handle the stresses from year-round repetitive, single sport specific movements.

As a certified personal trainer working toward my youth training specialist accreditation, it is clearly delineated to me by the American Council on Fitness in alignment with the other major governing bodies in sports performance, that, “Training for young athletes should be as diverse as possible for as long as possible. Once high school is completed, that is the appropriate age to specialize in one activity.” Essentially, the governing bodies made of sports physiologists, kinesiologists and orthopedic surgeons are ignoring the fact that this path of specialization is leading young student athletes toward athletic scholarships. Of course they’re ignoring that fact and should be, that’s not their concern. The physical and mental wellbeing of our youth is their concern as it should be ours.

I completely understand there is a major payoff in specialization and I attribute this to the 10,000 rule discussed at length in the book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. The author provides numerous examples from musicians to computer programmers to ice hockey players who, after 10,000 hours of practice, exhibit mastery. Youth who bank the hours of practice earlier and longer than their peers will likely excel past them; I think it is reasonable to say that a soccer player participating in team and club sports year-round is going to improve beyond someone of the same age playing only during their school’s soccer season. There is going to be a vast difference in the hours spent ball handling, passing and improving at the slight nuances of the game – stuff that can only be learned with practice and, specifically, game experience. Guess who gets picked for the elite club teams and given the exposure, which leads to greater opportunities?

My question to all of you is, “To what end?” Very few adolescent athletes will ever get a dollar to play in college, but each athlete who specializes will endure the physical overuse and psychological burdens of constantly having to perform to get on the right club teams, all-star teams, camps and tournaments. Isn’t it worth taking a step back and really looking at the ends? Where is this realistically leading your son or daughter and is it worth it?

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