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Sharon Chirban, Ph.D. Headshot

Specialization vs. Sampling in Youth Sports: Which Is Healthier?

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Over the past decade or so, we've seen youth sports become more competitive than ever. Today, many kids are encouraged to specialize in a particular sport as early as four or five.

This trend is often attributed to parents who are hoping to turn their kid into sports 'next big thing.' Coaches also frequently play a role in training athletes to devote all their efforts to one sport.

These pressures are fueled by the misconception that this type of extreme training is how you become an exceptional athlete.

But oftentimes, what these parents and coaches don't realize is that by encouraging specialization at such a young age, they are putting the athlete's long-term development in jeopardy.

Sports specialization is defined as year-round training in a single sport and the exclusion of other sports. The alternative, or sampling, is diversified involvement in multiple sports.

While you can argue advantages to both, the dangers clearly outweigh the advantages in specialization.

Overuse injuries are among the biggest risks to young athletes who play a single sport. Training and working the same muscles and joints year-round allows no time for the child's body to rest and recover -- which is essential for healthy development.

When a child cross-trains in other sports, they are working different muscles and joints, which creates better overall conditioning. This training model also allows for young athletes to develop a new set of athletic skills, which can transfer to their other sports, leaving many experts to believe this type of training creates better overall athletes.

The bottom line is, your child's training should include time for them to recover from the season and the strain it put on their body. Knowing the warning signs of overuse injuries is critical for the parent of any athlete.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of 12 to 13 should avoid specialization. This is in large part to their still-developing body, specifically the skeletal system, which could be injured permanently from excessive strain or stress.

These injuries can sometimes be so serious that a child can become prone to life-long injuries, leading to an early exit from sports -- which can be psychologically damaging to a child.

In fact, the psychological threats of sports training can be just as serious as the physical injuries. Children who spend too much time training for a particular sport year-round often find themselves experiencing burnout before they reach high school, leading them to withdrawal from sports. Additionally, the increased pressure and stress that comes with this highly intensive and competitive training can be mentally wearing for young athletes.

When we take the fun out of the sports, they can quickly lose their appeal to kids. We are able to combat this by encouraging variety, which breaks up the routine of training and also keeps things interesting.

But perhaps the biggest psychological risk comes from the illusion of college scholarships, professional careers and early recruitment that many young athletes hold.

However, what most of these athletes don't realize is that less than 2 percent of those athletes who specialize will play sports professionally, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This disappointment can often lead to more serious problems like depression, or a loss of identity, as all of the investment went into one part of the child's self image -- this is what actually leads to depression and a loss in self-esteem when a child realizes their dreams of playing professional sports aren't likely to come true, despite their rigorous training.

The best way to help foster our child's athletic development is to encourage our children to play sports because they promote a healthy and active lifestyle. Participation in sports is also a great way for kids to build self-esteem, learn teamwork and good sportsmanship.

Remember, it is perfectly acceptable to stand on the sidelines at your kid's soccer game cheering and hoping for a victory. It is natural to get excited after your child hits their first homerun. And it is okay to encourage your child to do their best.

As much as we want our children to be good at sports, we must also remember to be good sports parents -- which means no pushing, no pressure and doing what is best for their health and development.