Last week a mommy friend was bragging, in a subtle way, about the fact that her daughter was just promoted to a gymnastics team. As a member of this team, her 7 year-old daughter had practice three times a week for three hours each practice. I listened and only hoped my expression didn’t reflect what I was thinking (which was WTF?)
My friend was so proud of her little girl, naturally, and went on to gloat about the instructor feedback – if her daughter worked hard, she might even have a real shot of one day making the Olympic team. Insert conversation in my head – is she serious? Does she not know the statistics around overuse of muscles and children specializing in one sport too early? Does she not know that most professional athletes and Olympians played multiple sports before specializing (giving them less injuries and stronger overall athletic ability). Does she not understand the business behind recruiting children to specialize?
The risks of injury are real and joining that year-round CLUB sport team or training for 8+ months of the year in one sport might be the fastest way to end a career before it really starts. Contrary to general public assumption, playing one sport too much, for too long, too early in life, is just not safe and it will most likely cause your child’s athletic career to be shorter, not longer.
I know people want to believe that their child is talented and that this talent is so unique that it must be harnessed and developed as soon as possible. And Lord knows I love the Olympics. To this day I still dream about it not being too late for me to somehow pick up an oar and join a rowing team or researching other sports for late bloomers. And sure I want my kids to be athletic – it’s in the genes and sort of mandatory that they are at least very active. But how and when that happens are really key components.
There seems to be growing attention, albeit slow, around the topic — a few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a piece, Youth Baseball and Surgery for Overuse Injuries and a few months ago, the NY Times ran, The Age of Single-Sport Athletes Endures Despite Detractors’ Suspicions. This last article shares:
“According to the preliminary findings, highly specialized athletes were more likely to report a history of knee or hip injuries blamed on overuse; participating in a single sport for more than eight months per year appeared to be an important factor in increased injury risk.”
There are some really valid points in these articles but for some reason the message is not resonating with parents, at least among my peers. Is our desire to provide “the best” for our children causing more harm than good? What will it take for us to wake up, ignore our egos, and grasp this notion? I think most parents in general read these types of articles and find them interesting but they don’t consider it applicable to them. And to be fair, very little has been discussed about the appropriate time to specialize. When is it safe? I surely don’t think it is 7. But is it 10? Is it after middle school? High school even? It must also depend on the sport – recruiters for soccer and gymnastics start much younger than for volleyball or basketball. But isn’t there an athletic governing body that can provide some broad guidelines, perhaps in association with the American Pediatrics Association. Do these already exist and I just don’t know?
If not, here’s my humble thoughts about an initial guideline –
In general, parents should encourage children to play multiple sports for as long as possible. This will enhance their overall athletic ability and decrease injury due to overuse.