There are many viewpoints on this topic. These days, families grapple with how soon kids should “specialize” in a sport. The prevailing sentiment is split: while many experts caution that the risk of injury in young athletes increases with repetitive motion, athletes and parents alike continue to question the validity of this research, particularly if they have experienced otherwise.
Sports experts have tied young athletic specialization to an increased likelihood of burnout. Athletic burnout, particularly among adolescent athletes, has become more prevalent and an area of focus in recent years. It’s not shocking that research shows that burnout results from excess emotional and physical exhaustion, a diminishing sense of accomplishment, and a consequential negative attitude toward a sport. Anyone involved in sports can, most likely, agree that the ramifications of these feelings are detrimental. But is it preventable?
Sports experts, such as orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, believes the trick is to be an athletic generalist — i.e. play a variety of sports. Collegiate and professional athletes often succeed, not because of pure talent, but because they are healthy and versatile. Different sports use different muscle groups, so for developing athletes, playing an array of sports enhances and strengthens a variety of muscle groups, instead of a single muscle group that is specific to one game.
Similar to burnout, many coaches teach and develop the particular techniques with which they are most familiar, regardless of an athlete’s individual needs. Because of this, athletes tend to alter their natural tendencies to conform to the coach’s methods. Being athletic generalists, young athletes will lessen the risk of future overuse related injuries, develop multifaceted skill sets, and cultivate well-rounded athleticism.
This being said, we are well aware that delaying specialization can feel daunting to parents of young athletes. What if my child loves one sport? Will she fall behind the athletes that specialize earlier? How can she play multiple sports when the seasons and practice schedules overlap? The truth is, every young athlete has her own experience with sports. A child that grew up learning to skate before she learned how to walk may always prefer to play hockey over land sports, and there is nothing wrong with that!
There are physical and psychological benefits to cross-training, so even if she chooses a puck over a ball, there is no harm in encouraging her to pick up a lacrosse stick and get on the field for one season out of the year. But what if the high school coach coaches the middle school summer league? Playing a different summer sport, or taking the summer off, won’t disrupt a child’s overall athletic capabilities. If she continues to stay active, and especially if she’s doing what she loves, she will never fall behind the other athletes in her grade. In fact, taking a break from a sport allows athletes to rejuvenate — both physically and mentally– preparing her for the next season.
Conversely (and, ahem, our opinion aside), there are several standout female athletes whose accomplishments reinforce that playing -and being successful at- multiple sports helped propel them to success! Take Australian Ashleigh Barty, for example. She is #1 ranked woman in tennis but also played cricket while on a brief hiatus from her main sport. Not surprisingly, she also has a mean golf swing – just sayin! Speaking of cricket, consider Ellyse Perry, who was one of the best female cricketers in the world. This Australian has appeared in both cricket and football (soccer) world cups. Or what about Rebecca Romero? This Brit was an Olympic rower and track cyclist who became the first English woman to compete in two different sports at the Beijing Olympics.
While the idea of sports specialization is still controversial, one can only hope that through research, we will continue to discover best practices for young female athletes to prosper. In the meantime, let her put down the racket for a minute and pick up a bat, running shoes, or a golf club.
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