In the past, The PediaBlog has voiced concerns about specialization in youth sports, where young athletes decide on playing only one sport 12-months a year, every year. We’ve seen how overuse injuries occur at nearly epidemic levels in both male and female athletes:
When growing kids and teenagers engage in several different physical activities instead of just one, the natural stress that results in exercise is spread diffusely, at different times, in bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints. Focusing on one activity, one exercise, or one sport concentrates that stress on the same areas of the body, leading their bodies to break down at younger and younger ages. The majority of Tommy John surgeries on the elbows of baseball pitchers now occur in teenagers and young adults; 60% of these operations are performed on patients between 15-19 years old. (Pitcher Tommy John himself was 31 years old when he had the surgery that was named after him performed.)
In addition, sports specialization can lead to burnout and the feeling that “it’s not fun anymore.” Former Major League pitcher Jim Beattie adds another reason why specialization in sports hurts the young athlete: “The loss of total athleticism and ability to compete.”
Here’s why: When you learn to get creative playing various sports — about adjusting to the defense playing football, soccer or basketball, for instance — it can be of great help when you play any particular sport. Today’s young athlete, proficient in only one sport, has only that one sport as a reference point. He or she knows how to make adjustments — how to hone the appropriate skills and develop a strategy on the run — only in that sport. What’s lacking is a broader view of athleticism, of strategy, of competition. And that perspective is invaluable.
There are other dangers for young athletes pushed to concentrate on one sport too early. Many of them experience physical change, or growth spurts, and as a result they discover — far too late in far too many cases — that the sport they chose too early may not be the one they could have excelled in later and enjoyed more.
Beattie doesn’t want to see young athletes become “prisoners of their sport” when balanced priorities — in sports and in life — are what is needed:
Involvement in sports at the junior high, high school, college and pro levels has led me to conclude that the goal of youth athletics should be simple: to provide a framework for young people to continue their enjoyment of sports for the rest of their lives. Their experiences as young athletes should not “burn them out” on a sport they enjoyed growing up. That is too often the result when they are forced to focus solely on one sport.
In our zeal to master sports, we have lost sight of the meaning of the endeavor. Participation in athletics should be fun. It should help our children develop physically. It should provide them the ability to learn from competition and bounce back from defeat.
This resilience and its companion characteristic, the ability to adjust, provides athletes with a solid foundation that will serve them well when they begin their adult lives in the working world, which for almost all does not mean the football field, the baseball stadium, the basketball court or the hockey arena.