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Sport specialization in children

Youth Sport Specialization


Children should be encouraged to participate in a lot of different physical activities to develop a wide range of skills. Safety is an important factor of why sport specialization is such a big research topic. This paper will look at the research to determine at what age is the most beneficial for a youth athlete to specialize in one sport. The term “sport specialization” is defined as intense year round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports at a very young age. The myth of the only way to master a skill is 10,000 hours of practice will be looked at and what affects that might have on child as opposed to a more mature athlete.

Keywords: Sport specialization, year-round training, burnout.

Youth sport participation proves a rewarding experience for young athletes in which they can develop psychological, social, and physical benefits. It can also for some athletes serve as an opportunity to cultivate athletic talent similarly to school cultivating knowledge. The problem is that athletic talent development and the process how that occurs is misunderstood and it often results in unsuitable practices. Sport specialization is one way that young athletic talent can be abused.

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Sport specialization has been going on for years. With the new technology and advances in the medical field new research has been going on to determine what is the appropriate age group a person should start specializing in their specific sport to one day achieve a professional contract. “Sport scientists have reported that there are critical periods in the life of a young athlete in which the effects of training can be maximized” (Leite & Sampaio, 2012). Over the last twenty years the practice of specializing in one sport on a year-round basis has increased. In a survey of 152 high schools athletic directors over 70 percent of them felt that sport specialization was on the rise (Hill & Simons, 1989). Some of the important factors contributing the increase in sport specialization included: pressure from coaches, athlete’s want to participate in championships, an emphasis on specialization in the area the athlete lived, the high expectations of parents, and encouragement from college recruiters. The exact number of young athletes specializing today is not exactly known even though research shows that it is on the rise. Concerns over specialization include that athletic performance cannot be narrowed down to a specific age in childhood and correlate directly to performance at a later age. According to Weirsma, “98% of athletes who specialize will never reach the highest levels of the sport (2000). From the perspective of sociology early specialization can isolate the young athlete from friends and hinder normal identity development. Early specialization is also thought to be related to an increase in burnout or withdrawal from sport as a result of prolonged stress.

One of the theories grabbed by pro specialization people is Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (1996). The most important question is what age should young athletes specialize in a specific sport? Researchers and professionals are concerned that specialization is happening at too young of an age. Preliminary evidence shows that early specialization has little advantages, but it may also have negative psychological, social, and physical effects on young kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2000) ask for caution when it comes to early specialization. They also stress the importance of providing young athletes and coaches recommendations and knowledge to help them with avoiding the negative effects of early specialization.

One of the key terms used in sport specialization is “year-round training”. This term is used for young athletes who are involved in A.A.U. or club sports that operate outside of a student’s school team sports. This is seen in basketball, volleyball, and soccer. Swimming and gymnastics are the outliers when it comes to sports. Gymnastics is proven that a child at a younger age is more flexible and can teach train their bodies to participate in the sport at high level at a young age. Most athletes who dedicate their young lives to gymnastics will stop when they hit puberty due to their body not being able to keep the flexibility they had when they were younger or they become burnout on the sport. Another key term used is “burnout”. Burnout occurs when the athlete either becomes bored with the sport or the outside stress put on the athlete by parents and coaches becomes too much for the athlete to handle and they drop out of the sport.

For the future this topic of sport specialization will become evident with the students and athletes that I will be over as an athletic director. In high school I will see students either not wanting to participate in sports due to their previous experience in sports or I will have students with constant injuries due to their specialization in a specific sport. It is important to continually be looking at research so that I can hopefully educate my parents that I will be in contact with daily as well as the coaches that I will be conversing with directly. It is vital that my parents understand the potential issues and problems sport specialization can have on their son or daughter. It is also going to require discretion when I have these conversations with adults. There needs to be understand that the parents have sacrificed a lot of money, time, and miles so that their child can succeed in sports. Some parents may be open to hearing the research on the topic and others may be angry with even the suggestion that what they are choosing to do with their child is wrong. One idea is to post the research found on the school’s website along with other major issues seen in schools and sports across the United States. This will allow the parents the option to understand themselves what the research is saying about specific topics such as sport specialization and it can help them make decisions according to what they interpret from the research. It would be ideal to internship with a local middle school and high school athletic director to see what their day to day life is like during the school year and summer. This experience will help with the understanding of dealings with other schools, scheduling of games and referees, dealings with athletes, coaches, and parents directly, as well as what it takes to be in a highly touted position. It would also be interesting to ask questions of people in the athletic director position on tough decisions they have had to make and why they chose one decision over the other. I foresee the internship as a priceless experience that can answer a lot of questions as well as show the ins and outs of what it takes to be an athletic director in the area.

In conclusion sport specialization is important for any athlete to become elite. As the research points out the hard part is pinpointing the age at which a child should specialize. The whole issue with specialization is raised because of safety. The most important goal of any coach, parent, or athletic director is safety. When the safety of the athlete is compromised it can be detrimental to the athletes psyche emotionally and physically. As long as the athlete’s safety is held in the highest regard then the job is done. Hopefully as more research comes to light on sport specialization parents, coaches, and athletic directors will use it to keep the athlete safe because life after sports is more important than the short term sporting career most athletes will have.


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