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The Risks of Too-Early Sports Specialization

They’re doing either too little or too much.

For U.S. youth, that’s the stark paradox of physical activity. While more than half of adolescents fail to accumulate the recommended 60 minutes of exercise at least 5 days per week (CDC 2015), many young athletes are becoming specialized too early in life, which fosters a culture of elite sports that discourages broad participation.

Improving young people’s physical literacy—the “ability, confidence and desire to be physically active for life” (Aspen Institute 2015)—is essential to addressing this paradox. Low physical literacy contributes to a childhood obesity epidemic, an uptick of sports injuries and a national crisis of physical inactivity across the lifespan.

Successful athletes have an abundance of ability, confidence and desire, the bulwarks of physical literacy, but pressuring youth to specialize too early in life can come at a cost.

A survey of 300 Olympic-level athletes aimed to understand the predictors of elite athletic performance. The athletes overwhelmingly described an intrinsic love of physical activity (ranked first), love of the sport (second) and early success (third) (Visek et al. 2015)—key markers of physical literacy. Notably, the Olympic-level athletes played about three sports per year until age 14, and most played more than one sport throughout high school. Furthermore, the vast majority of professional and Olympic athletes began sports specialization after the age of 12 (Sagas et al. 2013).

These studies make a compelling case that participating in a variety of sports and physical activities helps children and preadolescents improve physical literacy skills and optimize later successes, even for elite athletes. In contrast, children pressured to specialize too early in a single sport can lose the opportunity to fully develop a variety of fundamental movement skills. These children are also more likely to endure an overuse injury and become bored with their game. In fact, 6 in 10 kids say they quit sports because it was no longer fun (SFIA 2012).

To read more about kids and physical literacy, please see “Physical Literacy: Why Our Kids Need It & How They Can Get It” in the online IDEA Library or in the September 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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