Over the years there have been numerous studies that have drawn the conclusion that sports specialization, especially at an early age is a bad thing. Most of these studies have come to conclusions that repetitive motions, over training, and mental burnout of a single sport lead to players not wanting to, or not able to continue in a sport.
Is there truth to this? Sure the studies seem reasonable and the facts they present back up their claims. With the Winter Olympics just finishing up recently, it poses the question of sports specialization. Does a cross country skier, a speed skater, or a figure skater really focus on 3 or 4 sports, or to they specialize in their craft looking to be the best in the world and shine on the Olympic stage?
Many parents hear that sports specialization will lead to over use or repetitive use injuries. Rather than letting their kid focus on one sport, they place them in 3-5 different sports. While they may get some excellent cross training and over all physical development doing this, there is the risk of physical burnout from doing too much general activity without ever really being able to focus on developing one set of skills.
The question that players need to ask themselves is what is their end goal. If it is purely sport enjoyment, maybe playing for their high school, then multiple sports is an excellent route to go. If a player has ambitions of playing at a competitive college, participating at an Olympics, or becoming a professional athlete, there needs to be a focused approach to the individual’s development in that particular sport. Having it as only a small part of a larger athletic collection will more often than not lead to failure. Even with an intense commitment to a single activity it is difficult to reach an elite level, but almost impossible without.
If a player is looking to reach an elite level, they need to have the proper environment for them to develop. This environment should focus on developing overall athleticism through cross training, injury prevention from over use or repetitive use of muscles, and a psychological environment that can prevent burnout while helping to cope with the stresses of elite competition. Most youth sports clubs or teams do not begin to reach these requirements leading to most of the problems that these studies have discovered through their research.
There is nothing wrong with a player being a multi-sport athlete. In fact, it provides a number of positives. The problem comes down to when a player wants to reach an elite level. There needs to be a commitment to that particular sport with using other activities to supplement time. Players should not miss practices/games/events of a primary sport for a secondary activity. It takes away from the commitment needed to reach an elite level. They need to be honest with those secondary activities that it is not a priority. They will make as much as they can, but there is something else that is more of a priority to them. The issue becomes with how those secondary activities respond to that environment not being a player’s primary focus.
The biggest question is if a player is going to specialize, or focus on one sport, at what time should this happen? There is no hard and fast answer to this question. It is best to let a player’s passion for an activity dictate when that specialization starts. For some kids they know at the age of 7 or 8 that they love a sport and that is where they want to focus their time. In this case, this player needs to be in the right environment to prevent the burnout mentioned above. For others, they may not make that connection until they are 13, 14, or even older. They may be good at multiple activities and realize later in life what they enjoy the most. In either case, the decision to specialize in an activity should be determined only by a kid’s passion toward that activity. Later on that passion might change, and at that time the kid needs to be allowed to follow their passion without consequence.