Five Considerations Before Your Child Specializes In a Single Sport
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Published on April 17, 2019

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Five Considerations Before Your Child Specializes In a Single Sport

Moms and dads in the stands at today’s youth sporting events differ quite a bit from generations past; a growing group of grownups sees specialization as a step toward success.

"The idea of having a child focus on a single sport isn’t bad, but timing is the key," said Samuel Schimelpfenig, MD, FAAP, Avera Medical Group sports medicine and pediatrics specialist. "For parents, specializing makes intuitive sense, but it can backfire and lead to overuse injuries or burnout."

Here are some important considerations "Dr. Sam" often shares with the parents of his patients when it comes to sports specialization.

When Is Always Critical

Developing bodies benefit from a wide range of activities and a full menu of sports. No two kids develop at the same pace, so timing is tricky. "It seems to be a topic that occurs at younger ages," Schimelpfenig said. "For kids who are 8 to 10, I would discourage it. But for children who are 14 to 16 years old, I’d have less concern."

What Harm Specializing Can Do

At the same time, Schimelpfenig said a focus on a single sport, especially one with repetitive movements, can injure. Baseball or softball pitchers sometimes face injuries in elbows, shoulders and wrists due to the intense practice. "A diversity of sports can really feed the neuromuscular skill of a child, help them become better in their 'main' sport," he said. "The stress from year-round practice and camps can cause burnout."

The "Big Money" Temptation

The more mainstream ideas such as the "10,000 hours" rule become, the more parents think specialization makes sense. That rule says success in any activity comes from tight focus on it for that easy-to-remember figure. If a child starts young with basketball or hockey, they might just win scholarships or go onto professional sports.

"Setting a big goal is great, but face the facts. About 1 percent of student athletes will earn scholarships; even fewer will become pros," Schimelpfenig said. "Pressing for such an enticement can lead to injuries and setbacks, but it does have a powerful allure."

Stepping Away Can Be OK

Parents may bristle when a son or daughter considers taking a season off or stepping away from a sport. But pausing may not mean quitting. "You don’t have to be a doctor to know when you force kids in some directions it can lead to big conflicts," Schimelpfenig said. "Parents’ encouragement has its place, but balance is important. Sometimes a break can help."

Be Wary of Online Comparisons

A few minutes online can lead to a rash of inadequate feelings about how you’re helping your young athlete compete. Doing a web search on "How to make a better baseball player" can do the same. "That inadvertent peer pressure among parents is another lure that can make moms, dads and kids overly competitive," he said. "Overdoing it as a parental cheerleader can lead to overdoing it as a young athlete. When I see kids who present with knee soreness or overall fatigue – those are hallmarks of overdoing it."

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