New data out (that I happen to LOVE) seems to go against many parental instincts, including a few of my own. I think plenty of parents have been led to believe in the last few decades that specialization and mastery in a single sport early in life is GOOD for their children. Some of that instinct rises from our guts in the mis-appointed “10,000 hours rule.” The idea that once our children do something for 10,000 hours they will be an expert. The 10,000 hour rule (brought to masses in part via Malcolm Gladwell) suggests that with dedication and time (10,000 hours) a person will develop mastery over a sport or skill. A recent American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report states, “it has often been misquoted that to succeed, an athlete needs to have 10,000 hours of practice/competition over 10 years. The media have incorrectly extrapolated Ericsson and co-workers’ studies of chess players to a formula for sports success. Many examples exist of successful athletes who have <10,000 hours and others who have not succeeded despite having >10,000 hours of practice/competition.”
Children in sports have changed over the last 40 years.
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. This increased emphasis on sports specialization has led to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout. ~Dr. Joel S. Brenner
And it’s just not true that grunt hours in a single sport will make champions of all of our children. Worse — focusing early and often on one single sport may lead to overuse injuries, burnout, isolation, and a less likely shot at succeeding at and loving sports for a lifetime.
I think in the time of the tech boom we can also be led astray by the “Zuckerberg effect” — the idea that we can only really change the world by focusing on a single thing and becoming a global master in doing so.
Reality is, those children who specialize in a single sport early are at higher risk for overuse injuries, burnout, quitting sports altogether and even isolation and loneliness. Successful, even elite athletes, are more likely to develop when our children don’t specialize in a single sport until late puberty, around age 15 or 16 years.
Basically it’s this: when children are young they should be playing sports to enjoy them and they should play a bunch of them. EVEN if you’re the parent to one of those kids who is super good at something consider mixing things up. Playing one sport only, year-round, may increase risks for injuries, isolation, and dropping out of sports early.
The Numbers On Children In US Sports
- 60 million children between age 6 and 18 play US organized sports
- More than 1/4 of children athletes (27%) only play one sport
- Girls represent 34% of those in organized sports, boys are 66%
- According to some reports, overuse injuries account for 46% to 50% of all athletic injuries
- The data shows that up to 70% of children drop out of organized sports by their 13th birthday. So pushing them from a young age to participate in a single sport for the purpose of competition and mastery, will actually NOT lead to them playing in high school or college.
- Only 3-11% of high school athletes play at college level
- Hardly any athletes (0.03 – 0.5%) reach the professional level
Use these numbers to let your child (and YOU) off the hook from those early, elite, traveling, teams that don’t seem to come up for air.
A new clinical report published in Pediatrics states that children who specialize in a single sport and train intensively for it are at higher risk of experiencing overuse injuries, burnout and even anxiety. Overuse injuries include: stress fractures, tendinitis and shin splints. The report encourages parents to keep their children from specializing in a single sport until late adolescence, think age 15 or 16. Instead, we want our kids to play multiple sports and activities with an emphasis on having fun and learning fundamental movement and sports skills rather than on training for competition.
4 Easy Tips For Parents To Help Nurture Happy, Lifelong Athletes
- Lots of different sports. Encourage your children to play a variety of sports. Don’t push for a single sport, even if they seem to be excelling at it at an early age. Or if it really feels right, work with your pediatrician and coaches on a plan to reduce risks of overuse injuries. Playing different sports may actually help them become better at their preferred sport and set them up for play during HS, college and beyond.
- Wait until 10th grade! Delay sport specialization until after puberty at age 15 or 16.
- Days off every week. Ensure that your athlete is taking 1-2 days off per week to decrease injury risk.
- Month breaks. Take 1 month off from each single sport 3 times per year. Year-round ANYTHING sets your child up for injuries.