Sports Specialization or Variety: Which Is Better for Kids? - Promise
Sports Specialization or Variety: Which Is Better for Kids? - From the experts at Nemours

Sports Specialization or Variety: Which Is Better for Kids?

As the seasons change, we all look forward to an exciting change of pace. With fall comes the bombarding of pumpkin spice, red and yellow hues, and, of course, — football. Remember when we could associate all seasons with specific sports? Fall — football and soccer. Winter — basketball and swimming. Spring — baseball and lacrosse. But more and more athletes are pursuing the opportunities that year-round sports specialization training provides. Long gone are the days of children playing a favorite sport for only a couple months a year.

As parents invest more time and money into sports, the pressure to maximize their children’s opportunities for success is higher than ever. This often means dropping secondary sports at a younger age so that children can focus more on the sports at which they excel.  Parents and children may feel they’re expected to dedicate nine to 12 months out of the year to a single sport, leaving little time for other activities.

Encouraging Your Athletes to Play a Variety of Sports

When you think about athletes like Michael Jordan, Abby Wambach, and Derek Jeter, a couple things might come to mind. For starters, all three were incredibility successful in their chosen sport. And they all played well into their mid-30s, an age by which many athletes have retired, either due to injury or burnout.

But what you might not realize is that all three of these superstars were highly decorated multi-sport athletes in high school. This makes a strong case that variety can be helpful in developing skills that can crossover from sport to sport. In fact, the majority of sports health care providers and elite athletes understand the importance of being a well-balanced athlete, and the downsides of specializing too early in a chosen sport.

Risk of Sports Specialization in Young Athletes

While sports specialization at a young age may seem like your child’s path to athletic success, this can have some unintended negative side-affects. Let’s review some of the issues that are more likely to occur in specialized athletes as opposed to those who play multiple sports.

Muscle imbalances

Elite-level competition takes elite practice and training. Practicing specific sports and skills at a high volume every day will certainly help the body develop the groups of muscles continuously being asked to move. But this can frequently mean leaving other muscles behind. In children, it’s actually more important to have equal strength throughout the entire body. Otherwise, there’s a much higher risk of getting injured. The best way for children to develop all muscles equally is by participating in different activities that activate different parts of the body.

Chronic overuse injuries

The body needs rest. Most health care providers recommend anywhere from eight to 12 straight weeks off from a given sport each year to prevent kids from experiencing overuse injuries. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play any sports. They just need to change up their type of physical activity or sport.

Poor motor patterns

Sports specialization at too young an age can lead to altered motor patterns or poor mechanics. Oftentimes, it isn’t because of poor instruction or lack of skill, but rather that the body just isn’t fully developed. Frequent breaks from a particular sport — while focusing on other sports in the off-season — can be helpful in avoiding bad habits, and can give the athlete time to further develop their physical skill set.

Burn out

We all love watching our kids participate in sports because of the fun, teamwork, and sense of accomplishment created by a competitive environment. But it can take a large emotional toll on a youngster competing, day in and day out, with the same people and the same focus. Losing a child’s “love of the game” is a big risk to take. It may even shorten a child’s career, just like an injury. By mixing things up, you can give your children the breaks they need, while ensuring that they have something to look forward to next season.

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Leah Kuczynski, PT, DPT

About Leah Kuczynski, PT, DPT

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Leah Kuczynski, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Nemours duPont Pediatrics, Glen Mills in Glen Mills, Pa.