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Monday, 16 January 2017 06:51

Specializing is Hurting Young Athletes

Kids love the Protea’s cricketer AB de Villiers. They are mesmerized by his skills and they want to grow up and “Be like AB.”

Youth coaches — most notably club sports coaches — are well aware of AB’s popularity with young athletes. And too many of these coaches utilize AB’s popularity to persuade young athletes (and their parents) to specialize in a single sport (in this case, cricket), telling them it’s the only way they can maximize their athletic talents and have a chance to be like AB de Villiers.

This type of advice is doing a disservice to young athletes. The truth is, in the vast majority of cases, specializing in one sport as a young athlete is the wrong way to go. Kids that specialize get injured more often, burn out and quit sports at a higher rate, and ultimately, don’t advance as far in their favorite sport as multi-sport athletes do.

The truth about a player like AB de Villiers is that in an age of hyper-specialization, he has reached the pinnacle of his sport by doing the exact opposite. He played cricket, but he also played some hockey, tennis, golf and basically everything else in a sports buffet. What worked for AB de Villiers, experts say, could work for everyone.

Here’s a snippet of some of the evidence against specialization:

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2013 looked directly at the youth sports specialization issue. The study found that young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one sport at the ages of 11, 13, and 15.

In another study, from 2012, also published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport.

The reason multi-sport athletes, over time, become better athletes in their ultimate sport of choice, according to lead study author, Job Franzen, is that athletes participating in more than one sport are exposed to a greater number of physical, cognitive, affective, and psycho-social environments than athletes participating in one sport only.

According to Franzen, multi-sport athletes possess a broad range of physical, personal, and mental skills that help them to be successful when they start specializing in a single sport later in adolescence.

Another factor for young athletes and their parents to consider is single-sport specialization beats down the body and leads to more injuries.

A University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study recently found that high school athletes that specialize in one sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at a significantly higher rate than athletes who don’t specialize in a single sport. In fact, athletes who specialized in a single sport sustained 60 percent more new lower-extremity injuries during the study than athletes who did not specialize.

“While we have long believed that sport specialization by high school athletes leads to an increased risk of overuse injury, this study confirms those beliefs about the potential risks of sport specialization,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director.

It is the proliferation of youth club sports organizations in this country that is fueling the specialization craze and the negative consequences that too often follow.

In a piece on the ills of youth sports specialization, Joe Haefner of the website Breakthrough Basketball wrote the following:

“Unfortunately, in today’s world, many of the pressures to specialize is driven by the youth sports business. Club sports are rejecting players who don’t commit to 6-month, 9-month, and even 12-month programs.

“Additionally, misinformation of specialization is being spouted to the parents. And the ultimate fear of “Your child might get behind” is usually the number one tactic whether it’s well-intentioned or not.”

I have no doubt that the majority of youth and high school coaches and administrators in this country have “the best interests of the kids” as their number one priority. However, some of them are simply misinformed when it comes to the perceived benefits of sports specialization. They also underestimate — or are unaware of — the negative consequences (injuries, burnout, lack of holistic skill development, etc.) of specialization. These coaches and administrators honestly believe having young athletes specialize in a single sport is best for the kids under their guidance.

They’re simply wrong, not evil. They need to be educated, not removed.

The sooner the better.