By: Joshua Scott, M.D. Primary Care Sports Medicine
We all know that sports can have a positive effect on our kids. In a time when obesity is on the rise in the pediatric population, it is heartening to note the statistic that 45 million children currently play organized sports in the United States. Seventy-five percent of families in America today have at least one child athlete in the home. The benefits of sports for children include learning how to work as a member of a team and developing self-esteem, leadership, communication, and time management skills. Playing sports can also help kids improve their academic achievement in high school and college. Of course, even with youth sports, too much of a good thing can begin to have a negative impact.
As a healthcare provider to a wide range of athletes of all ages and stages of life, I have seen a lot. Over the last few decades, one trend I have witnessed take hold in the United States is an overemphasis on playing just one sport for younger athletes. There’s even a term for it now and you may have heard of it – “Early Sport Specialization (ESS).” The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine defines Early Sport Specialization as: “intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under 12 years of age) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on single sport to the exclusion of other sports and free play.”
The prevailing wisdom and consensus on ESS from nearly every medical association out there is that it can have a dangerous, damaging, and lasting negative impact on kids’ physical, emotional, and mental health, as well as their long-term athletic development. The physical risks to children of ESS are often realized in the form of overuse injuries. Scientific data supports the notion that overuse injuries occur more frequently in youth athletes who sport-specialize than in those who don’t. The injury risk increases in young athletes with a high degree of sport specialization adjusted for hours of training and age and for those participating in sports, more hours per week than their age in years. Research also indicates that sport-specialized young athletes display weakness in certain core muscles that may lead to significant acute musculoskeletal injuries such as ACL tears.
Of course, the risks of ESS to children aren’t only physical. The mental, social, and emotional dangers of too-early sport specialization can include social isolation from peers outside of the emphasized sport, overall sports burnout, over-dependence, and manipulation from parents and coaches.
So, how can parents and coaches help protect the long-term development of young athletes? First, it is crucial to encourage children to develop their own intrinsic motivation to play sports. Exposing children to a wide array of activity options when young is a fantastic way to do that. It also encourages the positive aspects of trying new things and taking healthy, age-appropriate risks. Parents should also be sure to evaluate sports programs that strike an appropriate balance between the technical demands of the sport and the right skill level for the athlete’s age. The focus for parents and coaches of young athletes should ALWAYS be on the effort the child is putting in, not the outcome. Finally, taking time off from dedicated sports activities should be prioritized -for the physical and mental health of the child.
The prevailing sentiment among pediatric healthcare providers is that we can’t treat kids like mini adults. Yet a focus on ESS often does just that. Adults should view the growth and developmental stages of youth and adolescence as sacred – areas that we, as healthcare providers, parents, and coaches – should want to protect fiercely. To safeguard all of our youth, let’s work as a team to resist the unhealthy pressure of early sport specialization. Remember, if nothing else, lets kids be kids and let them play.
Dr. Scott’s PPT Presentation