You have probably heard experts say that to become specialized in a skill, whether it is learning an instrument, speaking a language or playing a sport, an individual must have at least 10 years of experience or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in that activity. And as a parent, you want what is best for your child and will do whatever it takes to help them excel, obtain a college scholarship or even play a sport professionally. In recent years amongst young athletes, this has meant parents are pushing their kids to pick one sport and focus all their time and energy on it. But how early is too early to start sport specialization? Is it worth it?
Sports specialization is defined as intensive year-long training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports and has grown in popularity over the last few decades. According to recent studies, it may not be as beneficial as parents have been led to believe. Researchers have found a correlation between early sports specialization in adolescents before the age of 12 and an increased risk of disordered eating, a higher rate of anxiety and depression, overuse injuries, burnout and a decreased development of neuromuscular skills. These studies also found that sport specialization can often lead to social isolation, overdependence and negative behaviors.
Research also suggests that instead of focusing on a single sport, an emphasis should be placed on “free play,” or involvement in multiple sports as it helps to teach teamwork with a variety of individuals, improves self-esteem and social skills, decreases risk of mental health disorders, and improves motor skills and critical thinking. This relaxed attitude towards extra-curricular activities at a young age helps to foster a positive mindset in athletics as well as in the classroom.
As kids grow, there may become a point where it becomes appropriate for your child to specialize in a sport if they wish to do so. Studies have shown for some sports, such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating, specializing can safely begin between ages 12-14, while team sports, tennis, and golf are recommended to begin specializing at ages 15-17. Endurance sports such as track and cross-country, are best specialized after the age of 18. Every child is different, and what works for one, may or may not work for another. Prior to specializing, you should discuss your child’s goals for athletics and come up with a plan to reach their goals together.
Hayley Stout, LAT, ATC is the Head Athletic Trainer at the Anacortes High School through a partnership with Island Hospital. She is a graduate of Aurora University, with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training and a minor in Physiology. Hayley has worked in many different settings ranging from high school and collegiate athletics to outpatient care. In addition, Hayley is passionate about giving back to the community any way she can. One way she does this is through providing guidance to the health and sports medicine teacher at Anacortes High School about best practices in athletic training and how to grow the program. “Working with Island Hospital, assigned to Anacortes High School, is a great opportunity for me to work within a wider range of medical professionals while continuing to support the amazing student-athletes in our region,” said Hayley.