Monday, November 14, 2016

Sports are good for kids, but early specialization is problematic

I see kids in my office that are focused or pushed by their parents to be superstar athletes, academic savants, musical prodigies, or all three. One mom recently told me that without a football scholarship, her son, age 9, wouldn’t be able to pay for college. 
I advise parents to let sports be fun, good exercise, and a social activity. Every now and then this gets me growled at by a parent who reminds me that Tiger Woods started at age 4. 
AAP warns against sports specialization
Sports specialization is becoming more common, with kids being focused in one sport by well meaning parents or coaches. 
The report by the American Academy of Pediatrics notes:
The norm has become for children and adolescents to participate in organized sports driven by coaches and parents, often with different goals for the game than its young participants. It is also less common now to have a multisport athlete in middle or high school, because the norm has become for young athletes to specialize in a single sport at younger ages. There is increased pressure to participate at a high level, to specialize in 1 sport early, and to play year-round, often on multiple teams. 

Why not specialize in one sport?
If practice makes perfect, doesn’t it make sense that more practice in one sport gives a child the best chance at stardom, fame, and fortune?
But, there is a real concern that children that focus too early are more likely to have overuse injuries and emotional burnout. Often parents push their gifted athletes to perform so that the parents can get their personal needs met.
The AAP reports, “Young athletes who specialize too soon are at risk of physical, emotional, and social problems.”
The report includes a nine point “Guidance for the Pediatrician”, to help doctors discuss this issue with parents. Even if you are not a pediatrician I advise you to read this section:
Guidance for the Pediatrician, from AAP

When a pediatrician encounters athletes younger than 18 years who are considering specialization or have already specialized, the following guidance for the athlete, parents, and coaches can be helpful.

1. The primary focus of sports for young athletes should be to have fun and learn lifelong physical activity skills.

2. Participating in multiple sports, at least until puberty, decreases the chances of injuries, stress, and burnout in young athletes.

3. For most sports, specializing in a sport later (i.e., late adolescence) may lead to a higher chance of the young athlete accomplishing his or her athletic goals.

4. Early diversification and later specialization provides for a greater chance of lifetime sports involvement, lifetime physical fitness, and possibly elite participation.

5. If a young athlete has decided to specialize in a single sport, discussing his or her goals to determine whether they are appropriate and realistic is important. This discussion may involve helping the young athlete distinguish these goals from those of the parents and/or coaches.

6. It is important for parents to closely monitor the training and coaching environment of “elite” youth sports programs (Malina RM. Children and adolescents in the sport culture: the overwhelming majority to the select few. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2009;7(2 suppl):S1–S10) and be aware of best practices for their children’s sports.

7. Having at least a total of 3 months off throughout the year, in increments of 1 month, from their particular sport of interest will allow for athletes’ physical and psychological recovery. Young athletes can still remain active in other activities to meet physical activity guidelines during the time off.

8. Young athletes having at least 1 to 2 days off per week from their particular sport of interest can decrease the chance for injuries.

9. Closely monitoring young athletes who pursue intensive training for physical and psychological growth and maturation as well as nutritional status is an important parameter for health and well-being.

US Olympic Committee
The US Olympic Committee and others recommend the American Development Model:
The 5 stages they created include the following:
1. Discover, Learn, and Play (ages 0–12 years)
2. Develop and Challenge (ages 10–16 years)
3. Train and Compete (ages 13–19 years)
4. Excel for High Performance or Participate and Succeed (ages ≥15 years)
5. Mentor and Thrive (for Life)

[Team USA. American Development Model. Available at: Accessed December 15, 2015]

Overall I recommend focusing on your child’s needs and not pushing sports, but rather enjoying sports. 

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