Kids in Sports – Aim for Variety
When thinking about starting your child into a youth sports program, it is easy to see the many benefits of doing so. Youth sport participation is wonderful for so many reasons as it can really help improve concentration and build the confidence of your child.
Some of the benefits of youth sports participation include:
- Health benefits: stronger bones and joints, reduced body fat, increased flexibility and muscle strength, decreased likelihood of developing diabetes or heart disease.
- Educational benefits: improved concentration and attention.
- Psychosocial benefits: better self-esteem and self-confidence, improved ability to handle stress, improved teamwork/leadership skills, having fun and making friends.
It is important to remember as your children are discovering their likes and dislikes in the world, to encourage them to try a variety of sports and activities. Some will stick, and others will end sooner than expected…but there is no way of knowing until your child (and your family) has given it a try.
Variety and emphasis on having fun is highly encouraged, no matter the age that your child is starting something new.
Children are learning so much during their school-age years, academically, emotionally and socially. Youth sports participation can help build on these skills in so many ways; however, participation in any activity should always come from a positive place of learning and fun.
In a 2014 study, 9 out of 10 children said that they participate in sports to have FUN. When asked to define “fun”, here is what they said:
Source: 2013 Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) data, for the Aspen Institute.
When the “more fun” aspects above are encouraged, children tend to view youth sports and working together as a team as an overall positive experience.
In 2017, 56% of children ages 6 to 12 years old played a team sport; however, almost 70% of children discontinued organized sports by 13 years of age. This may be due to the growing focus on “winning”, more time pressure, and increased social activities as they reach their adolescent years.
There has been a growing trend toward sport specialization in recent years. Sport specialization is when a child focuses on only one sport, typically at the exclusion of other sports, usually participating in that one sport all year-round.
There are many reasons why sport specialization is becoming more popular. The reasons vary and may include the goal of earning a college scholarship, playing at an elite or professional level, or being recognized as “talented” at a specific sport.
- Only 3 – 11% of high school athletes compete at the college level.
- 1% of high school athletes receive any type of college scholarship.
- Barely any (0.03 – 0.5%) high school athletes reach professional level sports.
Contrary to belief, participating in a variety of sports at a young age, and then specializing in a specific sport later leads to the greatest success. 7 out of 10 Olympians were multi-sport athletes as children. In a survey of 296 NCAA Division 1 athletes, 88% participated in an average of 2 to 3 sports as children and 70% did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12.
Starting early and focusing on only one sport during childhood may not make your child a master of the game; instead, it may have some negative effects.
What are the risks of early sports specialization?
- Increased risk of overuse injury
- Higher likelihood of burnout, anxiety, depression, and attrition
- Social isolation from those who do not participate in the sport
- Possibly missing out on the opportunity to try a sport that the child would enjoy or want to participate in throughout their lives
When is sport specialization safe?
- Current evidence suggests that for many sports, delaying specialization until late adolescence (around 15 or 16 years of age) minimizes risks and results in a higher likelihood of athletic success.
- Older adolescents typically have the cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and motor skills needed for specialized training and are better able to make their own decisions about investing time in a single sport.
We are seeing more and more injuries due to sports specialization, many of which can lead to lifelong health and chronic issues. Many of these injuries can be prevented by balancing time-off with sport activities.
How to prevent injury in sports?
- Do not spend more hours per week than the child’s age playing sports. (this is a great starting guideline).
- Do not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as time spent in unstructured play.
- Take at least one month off from a sport at least 3 times per year (children can remain active in other activities during this time).
- Take 1 – 2 days off per week from sports practice.
What if your child does not want to participate in a youth sport but you want them to have the benefits of exercise and participation? Or what should they be doing to remain active while not overdoing it in one specific sport? Unstructured play is the answer!
What is unstructured play?
Unstructured play is important for a child because it gives them a sense of freedom and control. It also allows them to learn about themselves and even make mistakes without feeling any pressure or failure.
Studies have shown that free play results in higher levels of physical activity than organized sports. One study found that up to 43 percent of youth sports practices are spent being inactive. Unstructured play in childhood is also associated with higher levels of goal setting, initiative, and academic creativity.
Examples of unstructured play:
- Bike riding
- Hula hooping
- Kicking a ball around the yard
- Inventing games to play
- Climbing and playing on a playground
If your children are going to participate in youth sports, we highly recommend making sure that they have unstructured play and appropriate rest time allotted as well. Aim for a variety and remember to keep it fun!
If you have any questions or concerns about your children and youth sports, or injuries related to sports, talk to your provider.
American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Effectiveness of early sport specialization limited in most sports, sport diversification may be better approach at young ages. Available at: www.sciencedaily.com
Brenner JS and AAP COUNCIL ON SPORTS MEDICINE AND FITNESS. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3):e20162148
Article originally published at Chesapeake Family Life.