By Ken Reed

Adults, parents, coaches and club sports administrators continue to push young athletes into one sport on a year-round basis, despite research highlighting the negatives of this specialization trend.

According to a Journal of Sports Sciences study, young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13 and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one.

Despite research findings like that, parents continue to believe that “professionalizing” their young athletes at an early age will result in the elusive college athletic scholarship. The numbers say this is an extremely hard goal to reach. For example, less than two percent of all the female high school volleyball and basketball players in the country will end up playing those sports at the NCAA Division I level. The number of those athletes on a full athletic scholarship will be even smaller.

However, facts like those highlighted above don’t get in the way of entrepreneurial club sports owners, administrators and coaches. Most of these clubs continue to use the allure of the athletic scholarship as the primary aspect of their marketing plans.

While club sports can definitely be a positive for a certain percentage of high school kids, for the vast majority of them specializing year-round in one sport, with one club, is a negative, both in the short run and long run.

For one thing, young year-round athletes experience overuse injuries and burnout at a much higher rate than multi-sport athletes. A study called “Risks of Specialized Training and Growth for Injury in Young Athletes: A Prospective Cohort Study” revealed that athletes ages 8-18 who were “intensely specialized in a single sport were more likely to have an injury and a serious overuse injury.” The study was presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference.

A particularly sad statistic is that nearly 80% of youth athletes drop out of organized sports by age 13. Burnout from year-round practices and games, and finding the sport no longer fun are two of the biggest reasons cited.

“Playing just one sport would just get old,” says high school sophomore Hunter Barker, who plays three and sometimes four different sports during the calendar year. “It’s tiring and it’s good to take breaks.”

Ah, the wisdom of youth.

“We believe that students should play multiple sports and have found that many athletes at the higher levels (Olympics, professional, NCAA) were multi-sport athletes,” says Bert Borgmann, assistant commissioner for the Colorado High School Activities Association. “Additionally, from the non-athletic side, they are more rounded students with broader life experiences, and that can translate into a stronger adult.”

For way too many kids, deciding to specialize in a single sport year-round is wrong on multiple fronts.

As Washington Post sports columnist Fred Bowen wrote:

“The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically says don’t specialize in youth sports. So, if kids specialize by focusing on a single sport year-round, they are going against doctor’s orders. And adults who allow specialization, or encourage it, are going against doctors’ orders as well.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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