By Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch
As fall sports are winding down, I am updating the color-coded family calendar that highlights the sports commitments for each of my four children. Although I coached three of my boys’ soccer teams this fall, winter and spring will be even busier as we navigate hockey, basketball, lacrosse, and baseball. We are still a multi-sport family in an increasingly specialized world.
My husband and I are willing to keep up the juggling act because we want our children to sample many sports before turning their attention to a select few. Our oldest is only 10, but the athletic decision-making has already begun. Friends and teammates all decided between lacrosse and baseball last spring, rather than playing both. We opted to hold off on that decision another year, giving our son a chance to grow and develop in both sports a little longer. He also started club soccer, which we know will change everything.
One of our primary concerns with club soccer is the potential pressure that club sports can create to specialize early in a single sport. Why is it that clubs, coaches, or parents encourage kids to specialize at all? The premise of specialization in sport is that the increased time and dedication to a single sport will enable a player to reach his or her peak potential. In reality, however, research nor practice truly validate a specialized approach. Knowing the facts about long-term athletic development, specialization, and athletic timelines can help guide parents with athletic decision making.
Researchers suggest that children are specializing in sport earlier and more frequently. The trend was recently confirmed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The youth sports culture has changed, yet the outcomes are not any different. An estimated 5% of high-school athletes go on to compete in NCAA Divisions I, II, and III. Only 1%-2% of high- school athletes earn an athletic scholarship. These percentages have remained roughly the same over the past 15 years, even though participation has increased.
Long-term athletic development
Recently, more attention has been given to the process of athletic development and talent identification. While there is no single recipe for success, governing bodies, medical professionals, and academic researchers have compiled available research from around the world. The IOC contends that “empirical evidence shows that a diversity of activities (including variations of play and practice) in early development is an indicator of continued involvement in more intense activities later in life, elite performance, and continued participation in sport.” As parents, it is our responsibility to help our children base their athletic decisions at least in part on the available research.
Sport specialization vs. multiple sports
As previously noted, there is a trend toward earlier specialization in sports. In a consensus statement, the IOC calls specialization a contemporary phenomenon that has led to an increase in competitiveness and professionalism within youth sport. Among the consequences of early specialization are documented health issues, such as increases in overuse injuries, overtraining, and athletic burnout. Conversely, the IOC states that diverse exposure and sports sampling “enhance motor development and athletic capacity, reduce injury risk, and increase the opportunity for the child to discover the sport(s) that he/she will enjoy and excel at.”
In addition to the findings from the IOC, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) conducted a comprehensive review of the available literature. The AOSSM states that “youth specialization before the age of 12 years is associated with increased burnout and dropout rates, and decreased athletic development over time. More importantly, there is a lack of evidence that early specialization is necessary for adult elite performance.”
Researchers suggest that high volumes of deliberate practice during childhood are not a requirement for elite performance in most sports. Instead, the AOSSM recommends a gradual transition from deliberate play to deliberate practice — while sampling a variety of sports — and then focusing on a primary sport.
Specialization is not recommended until after the age of 13, when athletes have the proper motor and cognitive foundation. Among the other valuable suggestions, the AOSSM also reiterates the importance of age-appropriate strength and conditioning, neuromuscular training, and free play.
As previously noted, although the trend is toward earlier and more frequent specialization, the data regarding the likelihood of playing a sport in college remains relatively constant. Research conducted by the NCAA in 2015 concluded that “student-athletes in many sports played that sport year-round growing up and participated in the sport on both club and high-school teams. Many NCAA athletes think youth in their sport play in too many contests, and a number of them (especially men) wish they had spent more time sampling other sports when they were young.”
In summary, the available research at the international, national, and collegiate levels provides similar findings and themes regarding long-term athletic development and the role of specialization. The consensus is that athletic development is a long-term process with many contributing factors, including developmental timelines.
There are many clichés about timing being everything, but in youth sports it really holds true. Despite getting an earlier start in sport, the window of opportunity is narrowing for youth sports participation. Statistically, most children drop out of organized sports between the ages of 11 and 13. The unfortunate catch here is that most athletes do not peak before high school. Any retrospective look at accomplished athletes’ careers reminds us that athletic development is a longer-term process. The IOC notes that current talent development systems often favor early bloomers, which is not the athletic population most likely to succeed at the elite level.
Currently, players are being weeded out of the system before they’ve even come close to reaching their athletic potential. Often players are cut prematurely or relegated to the B team. Coaches and parents alike should be patient with the talent development process, allowing for proper growth and maturation in sport over time. The hope is for children to become life-long athletes.
What can parents do?
Knowledge is powerful. With a better understanding of the factors that contribute to long-term success in sports, parents can better navigate their children’s athletic decision making. My hope is to empower parents to better communicate with coaches and advocate for their children.
1. Communicate with coaches
Parents are encouraged to communicate effectively with coaches. Be sure you understand the coaches’ expectations, philosophy, and agenda up front. Ask questions early on to be sure your family goals and values align with the coach and organization. For example, youth sport coaches should be more concerned with player development than scores and standings. Coaches should demonstrate habits such as equal playing time and rotating positions to give each child an opportunity to grow and develop over time. Seek out coaches who communicate comfortably and convey an approach commensurate with your priorities.
2. Maintain healthy schedules
Parents should resist succumbing to the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). So often parents encourage their children’s participation in various sport experiences out of concern about missing out and falling behind. This modern-day condition leads to overscheduled children who are more susceptible to athletic burnout and overuse injuries. Interestingly, there are more regulations on how often NCAA athletes can train and compete than there are for children. The only real gatekeeper to children’s participation in sports are parents. Maintain a healthy balance of sports commitments, other extracurricular activities, and family time. While this is easier said than done, just remember it is OK to say no. When you map out your family calendar, be mindful of the athletic timeline data and think mid- to long-term!
3. Help children become well-rounded athletes
It is increasingly important for children to develop as well-roundedathletes, complete with mental, physical, and life skills. Youth sports should be an ideal venue to develop a repertoire of these skills. In particular, emphasize the importance of a strong athletic foundation with your children. Progressive development of cardiovascular fitness, muscular fitness, and flexibility are key to long-term athleticism.
4. Promote free play
One of the criticisms of youth sport is how adult-driven the process has become. Somewhere along the line, youth sports went from unstructured sand lots to structured leagues. A combination of the two is key for athletic development. Through free play, children have fun, learn to be creative, and build a variety of skills. Experts suggest that free play is critical for healthy motor development, including fine motor skills, core strength, agility, balance, and coordination. Free play and pick-up games build intrinsic motivation to practice and compete, which is helpful for long-term athletic development.
5. Develop fitness and injury prevention
Children benefit from adding physical fitness to their sports training routine. Specifically, training can focus on locomotor skills that prevent injuries, such as squats, lunges, jumping, hopping, skipping, and so on. Various forms of neuromuscular training enable players to learn to use their bodies more effectively and reduce injury rates at the same time. The American College of Sports Medicine (acsm.org) has guidelines for youth strength and conditioning, which parents may find helpful. Increasing fitness and injury prevention can promote healthy long-term athletic development.
6. Get an honest assessment
On occasion, seek out an honest, objective assessment of your child. In this era when anyone can pay to play on a club team, it is especially important to have a realistic sense of your child’s ability and potential. Be sure to communicate with coaches when making athletic decisions. Learn more about the level and sport setting that are a best fit for your child now and in the future. Try to find a setting that provides an optimal challenge for your child.
7. Encourage multiple sports participation
There is no evidence that athletes should specialize before puberty (approximately between ages 12 – 13). Experts recommend sampling a variety of sports and following a step-wise progression toward a primary sport. Keep in mind there is a distinction between specialization and year-round participation. Often children balance a primary sport with other sports, not instead of other sports. Playing a primary sport intermittently throughout the year can be safe, if coaches and parents monitor for overtraining, overuse injuries, and athletic burnout. Take regular breaks from a primary sport to maintain health and motivation.
Increase the odds
As I navigate my children’s athletic decision-making, I am mindful of their long-term athletic development. My hope is to help them build a strong athletic foundation with a repertoire of skills that will enable them to succeed in a variety of sports — and life! As my children approach their middle school years, the need for sound and thoughtful athletic decision-making will surely increase. We will use the research and best practices shared here to guide our decision-making and increase our children’s odds of making it in college athletics. Based on the evidence-based approaches provided, parents can all help their children become better, healthier, and happier youth athletes for the long run.
Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an associate professor in the Movement Science department at Westfield State University, teaching motor development, exercise science, and other sport-related courses. She is the mother of four boys and lives with her family in Longmeadow. She thanks Paula Welch for her editorial support.