I had the good fortune to grow up in an environment with a wide variety of things to do and plenty of free time. I loved competitive team sports, and as a student I played competitively through college and beyond. Today, though, many young people's time is monopolized by sports and for some, even the very young, it's only a single sport - even though the research says that's not good for them.
I’m flabbergasted by the monopoly that sports have on our young people’s time. As a youth development professional who has a strong attachment and allegiance to sports, it’s shocking to me that high school sports programs and even younger leagues encourage and practically require a specialization in their sport, even in the face of research that suggests how detrimental that is.
Single-sport specialization has results that range from neutral to downright negative. The neutral: there is no research to suggest that playing just one sport will guarantee success as a teen or young adult and youth who don’t specialize perform better than youth who do.
The negatives include injuries, burn out and eating disorders. Youth that specialize in one sport get injured at a much higher rate than youth that participate in multiple sports. I’ve personally seen burn-out in talented athletes who were pushed too hard by parents, and research on youth sports backs up my observations. Eating disorders might be one of the scariest negative consequences, due to the long-lasting and potentially fatal implications. Youth involved in the highly competitive levels of a sport are more at risk of developing an eating disorder, and the stresses put on them by coaches, peers and parents lead to these behaviors.
What can be done? As educators and coaches we can incorporate the best youth development principles into our programs. Recommendations from The National Association for Sport and Physical Education and researchers from the University of Ottawa School of Human Kinetics include these elements:
- Encourage youth to try a range of sports and activities.
- Seek out those sports (and coaches) that promote positive self-esteem, sportsmanship and life skills.
- Find sports and activities that create an environment that emphasizes fun.
In Minnesota 4-H, we live these principles. We are intentional about creating high-quality youth programs, and that begins with identifying what one is. At a basic level, high-quality youth programs are programs that:
- Provide physically and emotionally safe environments.
- Have staff (paid or volunteer) that provide a supportive relationships and coordinated activities.
- Provide opportunities for youth to gain personal or social skills.
What are you seeing in your communities and programs? How do you, as an educator, parent or community member, raise expectations for youth program quality?
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