Let a Kid, be a Kid

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When I was a kid, I tried just about every sport there is. I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. The summer was reserved for a plethora of activities, which included running (in preparation for the 2 mile 4th of July race), hiking (allowed us to work on our fort building skills and bb-gun marksmanship), biking (our main form of transportation so we could get to and from the Minute Market), skateboarding, wiffle ball, shooting hoops, playing (actually using our imaginations instead of staring at a screen), video games (okay, I’ll admit it, we did have some screen time), and taking vacations with friends and family. I was lucky to have friends in the neighborhood, and my best friend’s dad helped organize activities for us. He encouraged us to be physically active and balance out our video game play with physical activity. I had P.E. class every day in school where we had units (a couple of weeks) of a specific sport. P.E. seems to be an occasional thing these days. Along with the reduction of P.E. classes, another thing that has seemed to change, is the growth of year round sports leagues. Soccer was the first sport I noticed that appeared to run all year long, but a majority of other sports are now following suit. From my perspective as a strength coach, this drives me a bit crazy. If these kids never have an off-season, when will they have a chance to work on getting stronger? It’s understandable, coaches don’t want their players sore and tired when they are trying to compete, but if they are competing all year round, is there ever going to be time? We see sports stars such Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, all of whom began training for their sport at an early age. They are the exceptions, not the norm. Parents often believe that if they have their child specialize in a sport at an early age, which is usually the sport of the parent’s own interest (which makes sense because they are often knowledgeable about it),their child will become a superstar. Is it beneficial to have a child specialize in a sport at an early age? Here are a few reasons why I believe it can do more harm than good.

  • Performing the same movement patterns repeatedly throughout the year, could increase the risk of an overuse injury. A study that appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that young athletes who spent more time in organized sports had a higher risk of injury. If they specialized in one sport, it was another independent risk factor. I never suffered an overuse injury until I took up long distance running late in life, and I was solely focused on running. A solution for this would be to play different sports, supplement their sport with strength training that has them moving in all three planes of motion (MovNat or some form of natural movement training would be excellent for this), and allow them at least a little time off each year from organized sports.
  • Playing the same sport from an early age could lead to mental burnout. Research that appeared in Sports Health showed that delaying sports specialization until adolescence could not only minimize injury risk, but also reduce psychological stress and burnout. It makes me think of another child sports prodigy, Andre Agassi. Even though he rose up the ranks to be one of the best Tennis players in the world, he had no love for the game. Tennis was the sport his father used to steal away his childhood and dole out abuse. Agassi documented this in his Autobiography, “Open.” At one point in his career, he turned to drugs to ease his emotional pain. Would Agassi have ever become a Tennis superstar if his father had never forced him into it? That’s a good question, but if he had found it on his own through experimenting with different sports, he probably wouldn’t have hated the game he was so good at. Give your child an opportunity to try different sports and see what they gravitate towards. Don’t force them into a sport just because it’s the one you love.
  • The majority of athletes that rise to the elite level, played multiple sports and usually didn’t specialize in a specific sport until their teenage years. In the article, “Sports Should Be Child’s Play” by David Epstein, he refers to a study out of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine that showed varsity athletes at UCLA tended to specialize in a sport at 15.4 years of age, while undergrads who didn’t make it beyond high school sports, specialized at 14.2 years. That may not seem very significant, but there is a measurable difference in the specialization age. I know of many young athletes that are specializing much earlier than 14.2 years of age. Epstein also mentions a Swedish study that reveals sub elite tennis players averaged an age of 11 years old when they specialized, while the elites played multiple sports until 14. He says the sports science data points to holding off on specialization until at least 12.
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I have shared the above video before, but I think it’s worth sharing again. Blake Griffin, of the Los Angeles Clippers played multiple sports until he was a sophomore in high school, and then he specialized in basketball. There is a lot of compelling evidence to hold off on having your child specialize. Even if your child plays multiple sports, it can be too much. When I hear a kid talk about playing in one sports league after another, I sometimes wonder if they ever have time to just be a kid. What about family vacations that don’t revolve around tournaments? I have some great memories as a child from vacations my family went on. I also have great memories of spending time with my friends that didn’t always encompass competition. Those bike rides to the Minute Market to pick up a pack of baseball cards and a pouch of gum are some of my most cherished childhood memories. In my opinion, sports are awesome. They teach discipline, teamwork, lessons on winning and losing, but I think sometimes we can overdo it. My son has become an excellent runner and triathlete, and while he excels at endurance sports, he still plays basketball. Even though he is not the most fundamentally sound basketball player, I love the way the game gets him moving in different planes of motion, building explosive power in his legs from jumping, while learning to work within a team (cross country and track are team sports, but also have an individual component to them), and most importantly, he has fun. Because he is getting so good at running and triathlons, I can feel the urge to push him to train harder, but the statistics above don’t lie. The most important thing is for him to be healthy and happy, so I will continue to encourage him to explore movement and sport, and let him decide his own path.

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