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Early sports specialization is incompatible with high-quality youth programming

By Margo Bowerman

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:

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?

-- Margo Bowerman, Extension educator

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  1. Margo,

    What a great point you are shouting from the rooftops. How is the research not being shared in educational settings throughout...teaching trainings, volunteer trainings, parent education, and early childhood education settings.

    On another note that pertains to equity and access...Often, the best athletes do not have access to a perpetual season. For example, in our growing Fargo/Moorhead community. The best soccer fields are not accessible by public transportation and are built at the edge of town. The leagues that exist put up arbitrary rules for volunteering that discourage our newer arrivals to our community from participating, and games and practices are scheduled without regard to religious calendars.

    I echo your sentiment from the rooftops and believe that this is where Minnesota 4-H will have its renaissance.

    1. Excellent point about equity and access Joshua!

      As a outside observer, it is easy to see how those barriers prevent young people (even those with access) from being the best they can be: there's an old adage, "you practice like you play" and if you're not playing with all levels of ability, you'll never be able to reach the pinnacle of your own ability. How can we help parents, coaches, city officials,... realize that youth programs that set standards for quality and inclusiveness are good not just for communities, but for individuals (ie. our own children) as well?

  2. Margo, You have brought up a topic that is close to me! Having 3 athletes in the house, it is a challenge to not specialize as they got older. When they were younger I made sure they where in a variety of activities. I have been fortunate that they like a variety of sports as well as down time. I have always appreciated a coach that encourages their players to do other things during off season or when they have a weekend "off"

    Sometimes sports get a bad rap, but if the coaches and parents utilize the elements you mentioned, it is a positive experience for all. There are many life skills learned from team and individual sports.

  3. Hi Margo -

    This is so interesting. I also see the pressure that parents experience as they are encouraged to start children young in a sport as a way to increase the odds of their children being able to play a sport later in high school.

    I am curious about your thoughts on that point.


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