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The human tendency toward competition is undoubtedly innate, but perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in the world of sports. Scores are kept, statistics are tallied, games are won and lost, and skills are evaluated in a clear, defined manner.
As athletics have become a more robust and public industry, the stark competition associated with its highest levels has trickled down to the youth ranks. Sports specialization, the commitment to one sport year-round, is the manifestation of that competition—and it’s more common than ever among young athletes.
When A’Jahn Huggins, a youth basketball coach in northern New Jersey, took a look at his 8th grade roster for the 2016 season, he knew he was inheriting a special team full of talented players that loved the game. Despite the team’s obvious ability and success on the court, however, Huggins started noticing certain difficulties he’d never faced before, mostly surrounding motivation. Of the 12 players on his roster, 10 played for at least one other basketball team, and many played for three or more.
“The biggest issue is lighting a fire under them to care to compete,” Huggins tells BTRtoday. “If they’re playing six games a week between all of their teams, after a while it seems like they’re going through the motions.”
Though Huggins explains that he understands the draw of specialization to some degree, he doesn’t think it’s the best way to approach sports at a young age.
“I don’t love it, simply because I think that you should give a child the chance to flourish,” he says. “Who knows what their best sport will be?”
Mark Hyman, a Baltimore-based journalist, professor, and author, explores many of these issues. In his most recent book, “Until It Hurts,” he chronicles youth sports specialization through pointed research, interviews, and firsthand experience as both a sports parent and coach. Hyman believes the climate of youth sports has shifted, with more of an emphasis on the goals and ambitions of parents rather than kids.
“Many of us have kind of lost focus and haven’t clearly thought through what our objectives for our kids in sports should be,” Hyman tells BTRtoday. “Many of us, and I have to include myself, are thinking of youth sports as a career path. You’re thinking about how you can position your kid to make the high school varsity team, or maybe to be a scholarship athlete in college.”
Though the issue of sports specialization isn’t new, it’s more pronounced than ever, as sports organizations and colleges place increasing emphasis on recruitment rankings, athlete showcases, and specialty camps. That insistence leads parents to subscribe to the idea that in order for their child to get ahead, they must specialize early on and play a particular sport as often as possible.
“We all want our kids to be the best athletes they can be and achieve all they can in sports, but the system we have right now is pushing just the opposite,” Hyman says.
A 2013 study published in the US National Library of Medicine’s Sports Health Journal agrees, concluding that “for most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status.” The study also explores the heightened risks of overuse injuries, psychological stress, and burnout—a toll that Huggins sees through the eyes of a coach.
“Some of the kids I have say they don’t enjoy the game as much as they used to, because it’s become like a job to them,” he says. “Obviously you’re going to have some type of improvement dedicating yourself to that one sport, but you could also end up resenting it.”
John O’Sullivan, a former soccer player, coach, author, and founder of the Changing the Game Project, affirms that the only way to shift the current paradigm of youth sports is to prioritize the child’s experience—a simple idea in theory, if not practice.
“We’re not creating an environment that makes athletes better,” O’Sullivan tells BTRtoday. “We’re creating one where it makes them bitter and makes them quit.”
The Changing the Game Project provides parents, coaches, and leagues with educational materials about the benefits of sports for children, accentuating the significance of recent findings that debunk specialization. O’Sullivan is certain that one of the major keys in giving sports back to kids revolves around communicating this vital information.
“We have to start asking kids and talk to them,” he says. “We have to look at the research and figure out this is what’s going to help them play best, this is what’s driving them out of the game, and so on.”
Hyman found that locating the balance between prioritizing a child’s experience and actualizing parental goals was difficult not only for him, but also for most parents that identified themselves to be in the same position.
“It’s really hard to do, and there’s no cookbook to help you do that,” he says. “Kids do have to feel that it’s their decision and their passion that they’re following, and not some dream of their parents.”
Huggins, Hyman, O’Sullivan, and thousands of other youth sports coaches and advocates espouse the inherent value of sports for children, such as the teaching of sportsmanship, teamwork, and the general importance of keeping kids active.
“Realistically, sports fit in as this great thing to get kids moving, and it’s also a great environment to learn values, to develop character, and to learn how to deal with failure and struggle,” O’Sullivan says.
He’s hopeful that with all the information now available about the adverse effects of specializing at a young age, the attitude of youth sports parents will start to change.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to think the pendulum is starting to swing back, where parents are saying I’m not going to spend $300 for my six-year-old to play soccer when all they need is a ball and a piece of grass,” he says.
“The current model is not sustainable, and it’s not healthy.”