There’s two trends happening in youth sports today—non-participation and over-participation. On one hand we have kids who are leaving sports in great numbers (see chart below). It’s a problem which many organizations are trying to address. Yet on the other, running parallel to this trend is over-participation, better known as specialization. In this instance kids are focusing on one sport to the exclusion of all others, playing year-round, five or six days a week.
Readers with children under the age of 16 are likely quite familiar with this latter phenomenon. It’s most evident by the growing number of club teams and travel leagues, often for kids as young as seven (Jayanthi et al., 2013). I can vouch for this not only with one of my three kids who specialized, but in a vivid example I witnessed when visiting Texas last year. I was staying at a hotel at same time as a group of young families who were there for weekend softball tournament. These ‘athletes’ were between the ages of five and six. The girls seemed more interested in running around the hotel and swimming in the pool than playing softball. I’ve no doubt that each family spent at least $500 for the weekend in travel costs; another outcome of specialization. It represents a significant commitment of family resources—time and money.This phenomenon of over-participation represents a cultural shift, yet it’s also linked to the growing number of non-participating kids. Experts suggest that the youth sports system caters to meet the needs of the most talented kids, and to families willing and able to invest the needed resources (Rosenwald, 2015). It seems almost inevitable that kids from middle-class neighborhoods are forced to choose a sport early on, usually one that the child shows the most potential for success. Forced may be too strong a word, yet it’s the path that seems fated.
Factors that influence specialization are complex, and include influences from parents, coaches and the system itself. It’s also the beginning of the journey where sports is no longer for fun, but to win. It’s no wonder that many kids end up quitting, or want to quit, but find it more difficult as they get older due to a complex set of factors that often include (overt or covert) pressure from parents, coaches, teammates and a sports-focused culture.
“It’s just about impossible to stand up to it if you want your kids to play competitively,” said Elizabeth Pelcyger, a Washington mom whose son felt pressure even from his baseball teammates because he wasn’t playing year-round. — Are parents ruining youth sports? The Washington Post
The Risks/ Detrimental Effects
Just as there are risks associated with non-participation, such as obesity, health problems, poor performance in school, etc. there are other, less publicized effects due to sports specialization. Most of the negative risks documented in the research are ones that our family experienced with our one child that did specialize in one sport. I share them here in an effort to raise awareness for families; not to be a downer or put a negative blanket over sports participation.
- Burnout — is considered to be part of the a group of negative conditions that include over-reaching and over-training. There’s three dimensions to burnout that include emotional exhaustion, de-personalization, and reduced performance (Maslach).
- Higher rates of overuse injury — there a significantly elevated risks for injury once training volume exceeded 16 hours per week (Rose). Also one study found that 1 out of 5 of competitive elite athletes reported injury as the reason for quitting one’s sport (Butcher).
- Adverse psychological stress — higher rates of anxiety, depression and poor emotional health reported among children who specialize at early ages (Jayanthi).
- Poor eating habits — recent research indicates the youth sport experience may exert a negative impact on food choices by athletes and families due to time constraints associated with practice, competitive and travel schedules leading to a reliance on fast food.
When examining the risks and detrimental effects documented (above), they do outweigh the benefits of sports involvement. But there is an optimal midway point between the two; a happy medium where kids experience the benefits of competition, teamwork and being active. And kids don’t need to play one sport exclusively, six days a week, mostly year round with families spending hundreds of dollars yearly to experience the benefits.
What Parents Can Do
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play is just one program trying to change the culture, emphasize and healthy sports participation. They have a section dedicated to parents which is worth a read. Highlights below:
- Try different sports individually and as a family. Research shows that the most active kids have the most active parents.
- Ask your children about their goals and preferences in sports, then design activities accordingly. Redefine success on their terms. At the same time, know the odds against your child playing at the college or pro level, and commit to making athletes for life.
- Advocate for children other than your own. Join a local sport board and promote inclusive policies such as delaying the start of travel teams, adding fee waivers for low-income families, and committing to equal playing time through age 12.
- Are parents ruining youth sports? Fewer kids play amid pressure. Michael Rosenwald. The Washington Post
- Sport for All: Play for Life, The Aspen Institute
- Coachup Inforgraphic: Are you a bad or good sports parent?, Coachup Blog
- Butcher J, Lindner KJ, Johns DP. (2002). Withdrawal from competitive youth sport: a retrospective ten-year study. Journal of Sport Behavior, v, 25(2), pp 145-163
- Maslach C., Jackson S.E. (1984). Burnout in organizational settings. Journal of Applied Sociology, vol 5, pp. 133–153.
- Jayanthi N.A., Dechert A, Durazo R, Luke A. (2011). Training and specialization risks in junior elite tennis players. Journal of Medicine of Science in Tennis, v. 16(1), pp 14-20
- Rose, M.S., Meeuwisse WH., Sociodemographic predictors of sport injury in adolescents. Medicine & Science in Sports Exercise, v. Mar; 40(3), pp. 444-50.