Early specialization: Something to think about before committing

It is quite common seeing very young athletes playing one sport all year around. To a great extent, it is done under the belief that it will expedite the learning process. However, research studies are indicating that focusing on just one sport before the age of 13 years old will most likely create the opposite effect.

According to Dr. Kowalski, early specialization is defined as spending more than 8 months out of the year practicing just one sport in an intensive structured setting at the exclusion of balancing playing time practicing other sports.

One of the major concerns in early specialization is the limited time to develop a more rounded muscular growth. When a young athlete forces his/her muscles into a repetitive muscular motion, it will increase the likelihood to have a sports injury. I have seen young tennis players having shoulder injuries as a consequence of making a repetitive arm movement. Those young athletes later feel emotionally devastated and much regret having put so much time into just one sport. Although surgery can dramatically help repair muscle injuries, no surgical procedure will bring the muscle to be better than what it was prior to injury.

Other concerning issues that come with early specialization are the increase for burnout, loss of sport enjoyment, difficulty managing stress, and later playing with fear of getting re-injured. These experiences also come with feeling a sense of isolation, and eating disorders, which often lead to dropping the game all together despite the enormous amount of time and financial effort to achieve sports excellence.
Also, young children who practically dedicate their full time to playing just one sport take the risk of becoming overly emotionally identified by that sport, first, and second by who they are. Anything less then success will damage their ego, hence having the added pressure to perform well or focusing just on winning.

When looking at elite athletes, they often express that they specialized into their chosen sport after the age of 13 years old, had an opportunity to play multiple sports growing up, and participated in non-organized sports with friends. One of the benefits of participating in multiple sports is the development of muscular balance, a more rounded motor skill development, and the enhancement for a greater capacity to regulate emotions.

Growing early athletes:

1- Make sure they play other sports for fun
2- Focus on learning and making progress much more than on winning/losing
3- Value effort and fun

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