Participating in youth sports provides many benefits — developing a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity, socializing with peers, building teamwork and leadership skills, improving self-esteem, and, maybe most importantly, having fun. But youth sports have evolved significantly over the past couple of decades. The days of pickup games and free play are long gone, now replaced with year-round, sport-specific skill development, driven by the commercialization of youth sports.
But does this adult-driven, highly structured, deliberate practice actually help kids meet their goals? Or does trying a variety of different sports actually present a greater benefit?
Highlight Reel: Youth sports specialization is increasingly common as children compete for elite status at earlier and earlier ages. But does this single focus on one sport to the exclusion of others have the benefits parents and coaches assume? Research shows the opposite: a multi-sport approach before adolescence gives youth athletes substantial benefits in most situations.
PROS OF SPECIALIZATION
Choosing to specialize in a sport is a huge investment in both time and money, for both the parent and their child. Research has shown that specializing in a single sport from a young age does have specific benefits for children in certain situations:
Current age success: If an athlete's only goal is to improve their current performance, early specialization will give them the best chance to be a top performer in their age group.
Young peak performance: In sports where peak performance typically occurs in adolescence or young adulthood, such as women’s gymnastics and figure skating, early specialization is often seen as the only way to become a top performer.
Skill development: The younger a player is when they devote themselves to a sport, the more time they have to master techniques and develop more sport-specific advanced skills.
Better coaching & competition:These more skilled players then have a better path toward high-powered travel teams, giving them access to more feedback from coaches and additional time to learn from that feedback.
ON THE OTHER HAND: BENEFITS OF SPORTS SAMPLING
Research has shown that single-sport specialization also presents some serious drawbacks: increased risk of injury, burnout, and decreased enjoyment of playing sports. Also, there is a disconnect from sports as children get older as well.
Studies have also shown that playing a variety of sports throughout the year is a healthier alternative to specialization. This multi-sport approach can lead to better performance, less burnout and social isolation, and most importantly, more lifelong enjoyment of sports.
The decision to specialize at a young age is often made with the hope of achieving greater future success in that sport, often in the form of a college scholarship. Many parents of sport specialized athletes have aspirations for their children to play at the collegiate level, but data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) suggests that the likelihood of competing beyond high school is quite small: Of the nearly 8 million high school student athletes, only 495,000 compete at the NCAA level. And of those athletes, only about 2 percent win sports scholarships. And the average sports scholarship is about $18,000, which is not an insubstantial amount of money, but only a fraction of the cost of tuition at many colleges or universities.
THE RESULTS ARE IN: SPORTS SAMPLING = MORE FUN + SOCIAL EMOTIONAL BOOST
Research also suggests that sampling sports as a young athlete can lead to numerous positive growth and developmental opportunities as well as benefit long‐term talent development in sports. Early sports sampling has been associated with a variety of positives:
- More options means kids are more likely to find a sport they like
- They reach elite status with fewer hours of focused training
- Increased transfer of skills to other sports
- Increased motivation, confidence and self-direction
- Better pattern recognition and decision making
- Play sports longer throughout life
Trying different sports as a youth athlete not only enhances their personal development and physical fitness, but results in more—and better—athletes.
And according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, 7 out of 10 Olympic athletes surveyed by the United States Olympic Committee said they grew up as multi-sport athletes and most called the experience valuable to their development. And multiple studies of elite athletes have reported that these elite athletes actually specialized to play their sport later in life, not earlier.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While most experts agree that some degree of sports specialization is necessary to achieve elite playing levels, specializing in the late teens may be a better route to achieving athletic success than specializing as a youth. The primary concern is that sports specialization before adolescence may be deleterious, not beneficial, to our young athletes. As parents and coaches, we need to encourage our kids to explore different sports, to help them achieve long-term physical fitness and effective skill development. Our kids should feel free to explore different types of sports on their own terms, without pressure, intentional or not, from us.
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