Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Does early sports specialization hurt kids?

Jenna Bacolor, Executive Director, Community Education and Recreation

I've heard both sides of the sports specialization argument. Some parents say that specialization is essential for kids in today's competitive sports environment. To even think about making it onto some high school teams and/or receive a college scholarship, they say, a child needs to choose his/her preferred sport early. Other parents reject this idea, believing that a well-rounded approach to sports encourages broader skill development and decreases risk for injury and burnout. 

Rec & Ed's youth team sports staff tell me they've found this to be a controversial issue in Ann Arbor, with parents passionately advocating one way or the other. I personally have friends and family on both sides of the divide.

When I opened the New York Times recently and saw an article on this topic, I knew it had to spark community dialogue here in Ann Arbor. In "Sports Should be Child's Play," David Epstein argues that early specialization leads to more injuries and, counterintuitively, doesn't produce top tier athletes. Here's why.

Early specialization may lead to more, and more severe, injuries

Evidence suggests that early specializers are more prone to injuries. A three-year study of young athletes who specialized in one sport for eight or more months per year found that
even controlling for age and the total number of weekly hours in sports, kids in the study who were highly specialized had a 36 percent increased risk of suffering a serious overuse injury. [The lead physician] saw kids with stress fractures in their backs, arms or legs; damage to elbow ligaments; and cracks in the cartilage in their joints.
Because it's more common for middle to higher income families to be able to pay for travel teams and individual coaching, the study found that higher economic status was correlated with more serious injuries.

"Elite" programs for young athletes may have the opposite effect

Parents often believe that early specialization leads to a better chance at college-level or professional sports. But studies show the opposite pattern. 

Epstein says: 
Several studies on skill acquisition now show that elite athletes generally practiced their sport less through their early teenage years and specialized only in the mid-to-late teenage years, while so-called sub-elites — those who never quite cracked the highest ranks — homed in on a single sport much sooner.
One recent study found that varsity athletes at UCLA specialized, on average, at age 15.4. Their peers who didn't make it into college-level play specialized at 14.2. Other studies of elite athletes of different sports around the world have found the same results. 

Finally, Epstein isn't alone in calling for kids not to specialize before age 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics 2000 policy statement on intensive training and sports specialization makes the same point. 

Of course, there are adults who specialized as young kids (Tiger Woods comes to mind). I'm wondering if any studies contradict the list in Epstein's article or if there are certain sports -- gymnastics, for example -- where early specialization is critical. 

Where do recreational sports fit in?

Rec & Ed's elementary and middle school youth sports leagues are designed to help children learn the sport, build skills, and enjoy the benefits of playing on a team. In the bigger picture, our youth sports leagues are part of the fabric of the Ann Arbor community, building strong connections among families and youth in our town. 

I believe that rec sports offer something for everyone. Many kids grow up playing with Rec & Ed, some even having the same coach and teammates for several years. For kids who join club travel teams, rec sports offer a fun environment for trying a different sport and building other skills. 

What's been your experience with this issue? If you sit firmly in one camp or the other, does this information confirm or change your perspective? Please add your thoughts below. 

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