Wednesday September 23 2020
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Kid Specialists

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Should Children Specialize in Specific Sports?

It’s a Saturday in early March and Ali is rushing from playing in goal at an ice hockey tournament to make it to softball practice on time. A 16-year-old high school junior, Ali is somewhat of a rarity these days – a high school athlete who still plays two sports.

It used to be that each season brought with it a different sport. Spring meant baseball, fall signaled football or soccer and winter was filled with basketball or wrestling. Now, that’s not necessarily the case, with more and more kids playing one sport year round. 

But is that really a good thing? Are kids better athletes, or are they just getting burned out quicker? Most importantly, is it healthy for a ten-year-old to play one sport all year round?

“Since this trend of specialization began, I have definitely seen an increase in overuse injuries, most common in children ages 10 to 16,” says Dr. William Greer, Clinical Instructor in Orthopaedic Surgery for Drexel University School of Medicine. “As a whole, we see a lot more stress fractures and the rate of ligament problems has also increased.”

When kids play one sport all year round, they often overuse a specific set of muscles and don’t do enough to strengthen others.

Dr. Greer continues, “If we can persuade kids to participate in other sports where they use a different set of muscles, it would help to improve their overall health and can help them become better athletes. Personally, I encourage kids to cross train.

“I see a lot of kids with shoulder and elbow injuries from playing baseball year round,” Greer points out. “If these kids would play basketball, for instance, they would improve their core and strengthen their lower extremities, which would help to improve their throwing motion.”

This is why Ali enjoys and sees the value of playing both hockey and softball.

“Playing softball has definitely helped me be a better hockey player,” she says. “The conditioning and eye-hand coordination is something I need for both sports.”

Aside from cross training, another benefit of playing both sports for Ali is the anticipation for a different season to begin.

“Playing softball in the summer gets me excited to get back on the ice in the fall and play hockey. I miss it. I really look forward to it,” says Ali.

That desire to play is something that’s missing when kids focus on one sport year round. Burnout can be a problem.

Mike Brooks, founder and president of the Montgomery Basketball League, has seen this first hand.

“I’ve had several kids come through this program from 4th through 8th grade who play three sports and excel. For whatever reason—maybe they think they have a better shot of making the high school team at a particular sport—they give up the other two and concentrate on one,” Brooks says. “Then in high school, either it’s harder than they thought, or they just aren’t having fun anymore, and they quit. So now this kid who played three sports in middle school is not playing at all in high school. And it’s because they decided too young to play just one sport.”

But Brooks, a father of three, concedes that to play a high school varsity sport, perhaps specialization is a necessary evil.

“Nowadays, it’s difficult to compete at a high school level without playing year round. My sons decided to concentrate on basketball,” he said. “That’s where they felt their talents lie and the sport they enjoyed most. It was their decision as they entered high school.”

Frank Reago, a former high school hockey coach who owns an ice rink in suburban Philadelphia, agrees.

“Hockey is a very demanding sport and by the time these kids reach me, they have been playing hockey exclusively since they were 10 or 11 years old. To make it to the next level they have to be playing year round. I don’t necessarily agree, but it is what it is.”

All of this hockey typically means more injuries.

“Not only were the kids on my hockey team playing year round, they played for at least two teams: high school and a club team,” Reago said. “The kids practiced five times a week and played four games a week. They spent a lot of time on the ice. The more time you spend on the ice, the more likely you’re going to get injured. And the injuries have become more severe. Instead of just pulled muscles, I see a lot more broken bones, which ironically keep kids off the ice for a long time.”

As Reago says, “I would, and have, encouraged my own son to play and try other sports. I don’t agree with playing year round. But if you have a dream… what can I say?”

But is it the kids’ dream – or the parents?

Both Brooks and Reago have seen parents push their kids to make a decision to focus on one sport at an early age.

“The danger is when parents make the decision for their child to specialize,” says Brooks.  “Then the kid is forced to play a sport he may not love year round.”

Reago concurs.

“In my experience, I have seen too many parents try to live through their kids. They spend a lot of money getting their son or daughter on hockey teams throughout the year and the kid isn’t even enjoying it.”

So how can parents help guide their children in the right direction?

According to Dr. Paul Friday, Director of Psychiatry at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, the best thing parents can do is expose their children to many different types of activities.

“What’s important, really, is for kids to play,” says Dr. Friday. “Diversity, in the long run, is more beneficial to kids than specialization.

“It’s healthier for children to self select what they would like to pursue,” Friday continues. “As a parent, you can help by providing them with a variety of experiences with what’s available in your area. My advice to parents is to encourage your children to be creative and discover for themselves what makes them happy.”

As Ali finishes her softball practice, she smiles a tired, weary smile.

“I’m having fun and enjoying myself. I am happy I am able to play both sports right now. I hope I never have to give them up.”

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