Update on Kids in Sports: Early Sports Specialization

By: Dr. Jill Murphy, Physical Therapist, Licensed Athletic Trainer, & Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Aiden Murphy playing football

If you hang out with the parents of kids in sports crowd long enough, you realize it doesn’t take long for the topic of multi-sports participation to come up. What is a parent to do these days, with Division I Scholarships hung out as bait for kids who love and excel at youth sports? The youth sports industry itself is alive and well throughout the country, and right here in Wisconsin. In recent years, the drive to make Johnny jump higher and Sally run faster has spurred industries ranging from sports specialty year-round camps, multi-million dollar sport facilities (right here in Appleton!), and growth of hotel rooms to be able to board all of the families traveling across the state to find higher levels of competition. As parents consider the time their kids spend away from home, money spent on camps, travel, and the cost to simply participate on a travel teams, two great questions arise: what are reasonable sports expectations for our kids, and based on that, what is reasonable sports participation for kids?

My own family has lived in the thick of this dilemma for years. My nephew did all the right stuff, coached by Olympic coaches across the country and was admirably and highly dedicated to his one favorite sport of wrestling since junior high. Result? He just turned down a Division I Scholarship to Brown University for wrestling, choosing instead to focus on his future career and academics. Then there is my niece who plays hockey and soccer. She has just accepted a scholarship to play Division II hockey at a small private school out east. And then there are my other nieces and nephews, many of which lost interest in their favorite sport in which they participated year-round before reaching their senior year of high school.

While anyone who has been involved in sports knows well, there are many reasons why kids drop out and lose interest in sports. And the statistics in the following paragraph are just that, statistics. There will always be outliers, kids who can’t get enough of their single sport and rise to the top of their game. While others are involved in multiple sports and also seem to make it to the top of their given sport. Some others begin their athletic career late in junior high or high school and still end up at the top of the NFL. So how can we  as parents best guide our kids in their athletic endeavors?

Let’s analyze the latest stats on the number of kids in sports who fall into this early and highly specialized category from Dr. David Bell, PhD and athletic trainer at UW Madison:

  • 36% of kids in sports are classified as “highly specialized”
  • Students in large schools are 13% more likely to be “highly specialized” than those in small schools
  • Students who tend to be highly specialized tend to have a higher socioeconomic status due to the cost of participation in travel teams, reducing access to students in a lower socioeconomic status (reducing the ability of sports to be the ultimate equalizer)
  • Female athletes are 20% more likely to be “highly specialized” than male athletes
  • Female athletes are more likely to participate in one sport at a high volume, participating in school teams and club teams simultaneously, increasing injury risk

What do parents and coaches think about this? Are they even aware? Not really, according to  the results of Dr. Bell’s studies:

  • Athletes who were “highly specialized” believe
    • Specializing in a single sport improves their sports performance
    • It improves their odds of making a high school team
    • That by choosing to specialize in one sport early, they were twice as likely to receive a college scholarship for sports
  • Fewer than half of athletes in general believe that sport specialization increases their injury risk.

So what are the risks of early sports specialization? The greatest risk is that of increased injuries due to the repetitive nature of practicing one sport year-round, in multiple modes of competition, many times with more than one practice or competition per day. Other risks according to research include:

  • Fatigue- excess daytime sleepiness
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Increased risk of burnout
  • Interrupted sleep and study patterns
  • Early drop out in all sports participation

So what is the solution? What is the “correct” way to do sports with your kids? First, be aware of the issues at hand. Encourage young children to try sports when they become age appropriate and your individual child exhibits the motor and cognitive development to successfully participate (this varies widely from child to child). Next, offer your child several options to try, and encourage a variety of sports in elementary ages through junior high and even high school. Discourage multiple practices and/or games on the same day/night, as doing this routinely signifcantly increases the risk of injury. Find opportunities to participate in multiple sports to the extent your son or daughter is able- this likely is not going to involve multiple travel and high school sports team participation during the same season as this much participation definitely leads to increased injury risk and burn-out! Have a heart to heart with your late junior high and high school student. Check in with their feelings about participation in each of their activities. If you listen more than you talk, you will be amazed that your kids’ feelings about sports participation are very different than yours, and not what you anticipate. Frequently kids may find more joy in one sport or activity than another one even though they are more proficient at the other! Encourage your child to choose their activities based on their passion, devoid of peer pressure from friends, coaches, teammates, and family members, including yourself. While the odds of winning that Division I  athletic scholarship is less than 1%, keep in mind the ultimate goal is to raise healthy kids who enjoy sports and activity participation for a lifetime!

Reference: Grantham, J. Specializing in Sports Specialization. NATA News. Oct 2018, 14-16.