Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Youth Sports Specialization: 10,000 Hour Pathway to What?

Washington University Orthopedics

We will live in the age of an epidemic of youth sports injuries. More than 3.5 million youth sports injuries occur every year in athletes 14 years of age or younger. Over half of these injuries appear to be related to overuse and could be prevented. As medical providers, we see more and more pediatric and adolescent athletes with adult-type injuries to bones, joints, and ligaments. The obvious question becomes – Why? Youth sports have changed dramatically in the last few decades and barely resemble the sports many of us as parents played growing up.

Sports specialization is among one of these major changes. Youth school-based sports, have become overshadowed by the growing industry of club sports and travel teams. Youth athletes now have opportunities to play a single sport year round, even participating on multiple teams at the same time. Young athletes (and parents) are now subjected to growing pressure to specialize in a single sport or risk jeopardizing their chance of playing high school or college sports. Unfortunately, many parents believe this myth. Sports specialization (defined as focus on a single sport year round) has long been common in the high school athlete, but is now increasing in the junior high and middle school athlete. Sports specialization in youth sports often occurs as an effort for the child and parents to maximize our child’s “potential”. All parents want to see their children succeed, and many wouldn’t mind to raise the next professional or Olympic athlete or have their child earn a college scholarship. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers recently popularized the 10,000-hour rule in developing a skill. Simply put, Gladwell noted that 10,000 hours of quality practice are needed to reach the highest level of skill for a given activity. That’s a lot of hours – especially for a child … 40 hours a week for nearly 5 years…. 20 hours a week for nearly 10 years. While many elite level athletes indeed reach this, studies have shown many reach the highest level prior to 10,000 hours. The path to 10,000 hours for the youth athlete is no guarantee as well, with many athletes sidelined by injury or burnout. Unfortunately, the 10,000-hour rule is the mindset many parents have adopted and supports single sport specialization.

Evidence for single sport specialization improving sports performance is very limited. Only in gymnastics and ice skating does this appear to be true, where intensive specialization at a young age may be the only route to ever reach an elite level. However, it’s not a coincidence that that overuse injuries are extremely common in these sports as well. Sports specialization at an early age in other sports like football, basketball, baseball/softball, and soccer doesn’t appear to have clear long-term benefit. The improvement in “skill development” that comes with youth sports specialization, must be weighed against the detrimental effects on “athletic development”. The short-term improvements in performance come with a risk of overuse injury, alterations in skeletal development, and burnout. Playing multiple sports in the growing child exposes their bone, growth plates, joints, muscles, and ligaments to varying forces that encourage healthy development. Exposures to multiple sports also leads to development of varying physical and cognitive skills that often transfer to their primary sport and make them a better athlete. Most college coaches admit to preferring to recruit multi-sport high school athletes for these very reasons. The World Cup Champion United States Women’s Soccer Team is a perfect example. Martin Rogers recently reported on the value of non-soccer sporting activities in these elite athletes in USA Today: http://usat.ly/1LZAwJs

"Having that variety is an awesome thing and I would encourage any young athlete or parent not to restrict themselves. Doing different things develops different parts of your body. It can help prevent injuries and definitely help prevent burnout." -Lauren Holiday, U.S. Olympic soccer player 

"It is really unfortunate seeing how things are going with some kids these days. It is easy to fixate on those 10,000 hours but sport is such a subtle thing. You might not realize that what you're doing in volleyball is improving your spatial awareness and communication, but in reality maybe it is." -Whitney Engen, U.S. Olympic soccer player 

If our goal is to develop healthy, balanced athletes with the best chance to succeed in sports in high school and beyond, youth sports specialization should be avoided and delayed until high school. Young athletes are unlikely to set such limits, so parents need to. Athletes should have at least a season (3 month period) of rest from any given sport, as well as having at least a day of rest from sports per week throughout the year. Stopping the epidemic of youth sports injuries begins protecting one athlete at a time.

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