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Healthy youth sports participation excludes early specialization



– When a boy receives five college football scholarship offers and a girl commits to playing soccer for a university before either of them starts ninth grade, it’s time to take several steps back in youth sports.

The culture of early specialization in sports poses more risks than benefits for young athletes, including the risk of potentially discouraging a lifetime of healthy athletic participation, according to Joel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, a sports medicine expert at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters and Eastern Virginia Medical School, both in Norfolk.

“This paradigm should be discouraged by society,” Dr. Brenner told attendees at the American Academy of Pediatrics annual meeting. “Sports specialization refers to focusing on one sport to the exclusion of all others, often playing that single sport year-round. Dr. Brenner authored the AAP’s 2016 clinical report on sports specialization and intensive training in young athletes.

Dr. Brenner emphasized the benefits of delaying sports specialization until after puberty, the risks of specializing sooner, and the importance of rest to prevent burnout and injuries.

This is not a new problem, he noted, showing the attendees two Time Magazine covers, from 1999 and 2017, that featured the concern of “Sports Crazed Kids.” But it is so far-reaching that it will requires more than just physicians to change.

“This is not just an athlete problem, a parent problem, a coach problem, or even a physician problem,” Dr. Brenner said. “It’s a societal problem, a youth sports culture problem, and one that all of us as stakeholders need to attack and try to change the culture.”

Youth sports offer a broad range of benefits, such as developing physical activity, and leadership skills, and promoting self-esteem, socialization, and teamwork, Dr. Brenner said.

“But one benefit that often gets forgotten by people, including the coaches, the parents, and the athletes, is that sports is supposed to be about having fun,” he said.

The old model of kids’ sports was loosely organized fun, with kids playing multiple sports throughout the year and less direct involvement from adults, such as street hockey games and pick-up basketball. But those bygone days, Dr. Brenner noted wistfully, have been replaced with a different paradigm today: Children specialize in a single sport very early, and parents and coaches are the driving forces behind their involvement.

Today’s culture of very early sports specialization and college recruitment increases pressure on parents and young athletes to play year-round on multiple teams to stay on the radar of scouts and colleges. And this specialization has expanded to younger and younger ages, with 7-year-olds participating in travel leagues and national rankings of children in their sport as early as sixth grade.

“We should not be ranking kids in middle school or even in early high school,” Dr. Brenner said to wide applause. “We should allow kids to develop in a low-pressure, healthy system before we do that.”

The effects of high pressure have potentially lifelong ramifications. By the time children are 13 years old, 70% have dropped out of organized sports, Dr. Brenner said, and injuries from overuse account for more than half of all sports-related injuries in youth.

Yet the alternative – early diversification and late specialization – can really benefit kids, he said. The early specialization paradigm of playing just one sport focuses on deliberate practice and performance from the start. By contrast, early diversification with multiple sports focuses on deliberate play, during which children develop foundational athletic skills. Children who play a variety of sports are more likely to participate for more years – and it meets youth’s more realistic, long-term needs for lifelong physical activity through “fun, variety, and play,” he said.

Dr. Brenner said that just 1% of high school athletes receive any athletic scholarships, and only 3%-11% of high school athletes compete at the college level. The numbers for high school athletes that go on to play at the professional level is, of course, even smaller: 0.03% to 0.5%, depending on the sport.

And the irony is that the goal of early specialization – producing such elite level athletes – is actually better accomplished through playing multiple sports, Dr. Brenner said. Most Division 1 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes and 90% of National Football League (NFL) first-round picks played multiple sports in high school. So the benefits of waiting until late adolescence to specialize are twofold: a greater likelihood of athletic success, even at elite levels, and minimizing the risks of injury.

Overuse injuries pose serious risks

More than half of sports injuries are from overuse, and a number of factors contribute to those injuries, such as muscle imbalance, playing surfaces, and training errors, Dr. Brenner said. But the biggest contributors are early specialization, playing year-round sports, and playing on multiple teams.

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