How early specialization harms youth sport

Not long ago, I spoke to legendary high school coach Larry McKenzie about the pressure on kids as young as 9 to specialize in a single sport. Parents who want their kids to be successful enroll them in year-long training and tournaments, leaving their schedules so full that there isn’t room for anything else.

“Kids can’t be kids anymore,” said McKenzie, who recently retired. “The specialization blows my mind. There are so many kids because they get involved so early, by the time they reach 14, 15, the age to try, they’re burned out. They don’t even enjoy it.”

Children should try their hand at a variety of activities, he said. Trying different sports helps them rotate through muscle groups and develop a broader range of skills while preventing injury and burnout. It also exposes children to a more diverse group of friends.

Yes, yes, I agreed, thinking of the ambitious suburban soccer club my fourth grader had played for all year.

Intellectually, I agree that 9 is way too young for kids to explain a sport and brush off everyone else. I have no illusions that my child will grow up to be an elite, professional, or even a collegiate athlete. My only dream for him is to be a mediocre player in his sport of choice with the option of making his high school team if he so desires. But it feels like even that path today requires a costly, high-stakes investment that takes some of the fun out of youth sports.

A 2019 study by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play states that the average child has been playing sports for less than three years and quits by age 11, in many cases because they are no longer enjoying it or have lost interest. The study found that they rarely stop to take up another sport.

Here’s why it’s concerning: Research shows that participating in sports is linked to better social, mental, and physical health, and yet most teens aren’t getting the daily hour of exercise they should.

My generation can remember when local recreational youth sports programs coupled with unstructured play on the streets or in city parks was all it took. No third grader was dropped from the team for lack of ability. Ten-year-olds weren’t conditioned to think it was “too late” to try a new sport. But alas, these are heartbreaking realities for the modern child.

According to Linda Flanagan’s new book, Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports – and Why it Matters, youth sports have grown into an insane $19 billion industry, more than the value of the NFL. Higher-income families will burn big bucks on their children’s travel team fees, transportation, and gear. For example, according to the Aspen Study, hockey parents spent an average of about $2,600 per year, while the average across all sports was about $700.

This has created a youth sports ecosystem of rich and have-nots. And when the kids who specialized early burn out by 11, they’ve crowded out late bloomers or kids whose parents can’t afford intensive pay-to-play programs.

Ironically, research has shown that the more parents spend on youth sports, the more pressure and less fun the child feels.

Club sports and year-round specialization have been trending for 20 years, if not longer, said Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. “That’s because publicly funded community sports have declined,” she told me. “Clubs have filled the gap.”

Children are like most people – they attract activities in which they excel. But young children are still developing. Smaller or less coordinated children who have the potential to grow in their abilities are at greater risk, LaVoi said.

“Unfortunately, kids as young as 10 feel retarded if they haven’t played a sport,” said LaVoi, a former collegiate tennis player who was involved in multiple sports in high school. “The problem with that is the level of confidence that they believe they can do something, which is the biggest indicator of sticking with it. If they try and say, ‘I’m behind, all kids are better,’ they’re not going to stick with it. Children do not want to be perceived as the weakest link.”

McKenzie, the basketball coach who has led his teams to six state championships, said he scratches his head at the thought of 5-year-olds traveling to youth tournaments in the summer or being dropped off for hours of practice at private clubs. He teases his son, who coaches kids at a youth basketball academy, “You may think you coach, but you’re just a highly paid babysitter.”

He encouraged his athletes to try a different sport in the offseason. His own children, who played Division I college basketball, had diverse interests including ribbon and beauty pageants.

When he spoke to college recruiters who were eyeing one of his players, many asked if the athletes were playing anything else. “College coaches want players who have played multiple sports,” he said. “It is viewed as an additional asset.”

Perhaps these coaches have read research that shows generalists, not specialists, are more likely to play at an elite level.

David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, said that most elite athletes grow by trying a variety of sports, “postponing specialization later than their peers who enter at lower levels reaching a plateau,” he writes. “The path to making the best 20-year-old athlete, it turns out, is not the same as the path to making the best 10-year-old athlete.”

My son just finished his last soccer game of the year. He asked to take a break for the winter. After reading the research results, I am happy to follow his example. We use this break to relax and explore other activities, from snowboarding to pickleball.

But we only have a short window of opportunity to try. Training for the summer football season begins in February.

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