Changing the Game: Is it Wise to Specialize?
“When parents found a way to make money off of their kids, sports changed,” Darron Mitchell, the head baseball coach of Parkview Baptist School, laments.
Gone are the days of children playing multiple sports just for fun. Now, many kids are playing one sport year round to become elite athletes. This athletic trend is called sports specialization, the year-round training of one sport with the exclusion of other sports. This lifestyle requires families to immerse themselves in expensive travel club teams that are highly structured. Focused trainings and practices dominate young athletes’ schedules with little time for unorganized play. The purpose has shifted from enjoyment of the activity to improving performance. Instead of deliberate play, kids are spending their time in deliberate practice.
M.L. Woodruff, the Sports Outreach Minister at Istrouma Baptist Church and 11-time high school state championship baseball coach, has observed the transformation of sports over the last 20 years. Woodruff is concerned about the youth that specialization is producing. He acknowledges, “Athleticism is being sucked out of kids. Kids are not becoming athletes, they are becoming sports players. Instead of becoming well-rounded athletes, they are becoming skill machines.”
Some negative results of early sports specialization are increased rate of injury, burnout, and loss of childhood.
“It’s almost sad the rate at which kids, particularly in baseball, are getting injured because of specialization. It’s become an epidemic. Three and a half million patients under the age of 14 are being seen by orthopaedic surgeons nationwide,” Beau Lowery, an expert in sports injuries, declares. He has been a physical therapist and athletic trainer for 18 years, owns Elite Physical Therapy, and is the director of rehabilitation for the New Orleans Saints. Lowery first began seeing the pattern of kids’ orthopaedic injuries while he was working with the Baton Rouge Orthopeadic Clinic. The frequency and severity of injuries correlates with the amount of play and practice on the young, developing bodies. Lowery advises, “Parents and coaches have to be educated to know what is safe for these kids. Periodization, taking time out of the year to rest, must be implemented.” Injuries to young bodies can have a detrimental effect on athletes as they grow older. Lowery recounts several instances of freshman baseball players at LSU whose arms and shoulders were already beyond repair before they even stepped on the college field.
The burnout is not just physical but mental and emotional as well. High school coaches are seeing more athletes that are burned out and tired of playing their one sport. An Ohio State University study found that kids who played a single sport were more likely to quit their sport and be physically inactive as adults. They burn out and then withdraw. Mitchell recalls a similar incident on his team.
“We had a promising kid come in last year, and after the first day of practice he said, ‘I hate baseball.’ Good-looking kid, could throw it, hit well, run, was athletic. He had played 40-50 games the summer before the season and was just worn down.” Unfortunately, early specialization can result in the exact opposite of the parents’ college scholarship dreams when the kids withdraw from the sport during high school. The psychological stress and the intense schedule drains them of the love and passion they once had for the game.
Loss of Childhood
Another result of early specialization is the loss of carefree childhood. The year-round practice and play schedule becomes like a second job to kids. When parents and coaches add a strenuous specialization schedule to their lives, the child now has two major responsibilities, school and training. The child takes on responsibilities and expectations that should be reserved for teen and adult years. Woodruff criticizes, “The micromanagement keeps children from thinking and playing on their own.”
Benefits of Diversification
While sports specialization can lead to risky consequences, diversification offers benefits. Playing multiple sports provides valuable social, physical, and cognitive activity as well as promotes motivation. A study by the American Society of Sports Medicine found that 88 percent of college athletes played more than one sport when they were kids. Mitchell explains, “The three big sports (football, baseball, and basketball) all teach different things. Baseball can’t teach you some of the team dynamics of football or the athleticism of basketball. And in turn, the other two can’t teach you how to deal with [individual] failure as much as baseball does. Life lessons are learned in everything we do. When we only focus on one thing, we are missing out on so much more.” If the purpose of athletics is to have fun, learn about life, and improve social skills, then more variety contributes to more fun and greater lessons.
What Can Parents Do?
Woodruff suggests that parents ask their children what their interests are and give them many opportunities to explore them. If a child loves basketball, give them that opportunity, but understand that does not mean they should only play basketball all of the time. He uses the analogy of chocolate milk, “Sure, your kid may like chocolate milk, but do you give it to them at all three meals every day?” No, because parents choose what is healthy for the child. Children should be encouraged to play multiple sports as well as unorganized play. Lowery agrees, “I recommend a variety of sports. Let them play whatever they want to play.” Woodruff also stresses the importance of choosing the right coaches. He advises to select a coach “that is knowledgeable and coaches kids, not just sports, someone that is trained in the learning process that makes it fun. It’s play ball, not work ball.”
When it comes to children and sports, let them play, not train. ■