Column: Specialization in youth sports has dangers

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that 10,000 hours of quality training in a specific discipline could, in most cases, turn anyone into an expert, even an elite level athlete. Unfortunately, a number of coaches and parents too eagerly embrace Gladwell’s theory when it comes to youth sports.

Most of us recognize the many potential benefits of participating in sports at a young age. Sports give kids the opportunity to enhance self-esteem, socialize with their peers, learn discipline and improve their health and fitness. The latter benefit is more important today than it’s ever been, given the sedate nature of today’s lifestyle.

But youth sports today is very different than it was even a generation ago, a fact that can be attributed to three trends. First, most of the time spent in athletic participation is devoted to structured activities and competitions. Second, many children are encouraged – even required – by coaches and/or parents to forsake participating in multiple sports for specialization in one sport at an early age, sometimes as young as 9 or 10. Third, budding athletes are expected to play their sport year round.

Kids are raised to believe this approach is the only way they can maximize their athletic talents and have a chance to play “at the next level,” be it high school, college or the pros. Specialization may work – at least in the short term – but research suggests this approach comes with a heavy price: Too many children are suffering “overuse” injuries, lose interest in participating, and/or suffer burnout long before they ever reach the elite level as an athlete.

Not surprisingly, money and glory are prioritized over the welfare of the child. Parents seize the opportunity to live life through their children, or perhaps their goal is a scholarship to alleviate the cost of a college education. Coaches and businessmen see an opportunity to make money and revel in the recognition that naturally comes with the success of their training programs or traveling teams.

What sometimes gets lost in the mix is what’s in the best interest of the child. Numerous studies suggest that playing multiple sports during childhood and adolescence is more effective in developing successful athletes than single-sport specialization. Furthermore, scientific data shows that early single-sport specialization might actually be detrimental to long-term success in sports, especially team sports. Respected organizations such as the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine have cited the underappreciated short- and long-term consequences of overuse injuries due to specialization, some of which can end a budding career before it even begins.

Ironically, many college coaches understand what too many parents and youth coaches choose to ignore. Some coaches actually prefer recruiting multi-sport athletes because oftentimes they have a bigger upside than the athlete who has specialized. They believe that multi-sport athletes aren’t done developing, are better all-around athletes, and are less likely to suffer burnout.

Football coaches Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Dabo Swinney at Clemson, whose teams qualified for the College Football National Championships, are two highly successful coaches who actively recruit multi-sport athletes. Maybe they’re swimming against the tide or perhaps they’re at the forefront of a much needed change in philosophy that will ultimately benefit our young athletes.

So let’s encourage kids to play sports for all the benefits that athletic participation brings. Young people deserve the opportunity to play sports for the same reasons most of us did – to live a dream, regardless of ability, and to develop physically, mentally and emotionally. But let’s not get so focused on money or competition results that we lose sight of what’s really at stake here: The well-being of our youth.

If participating in sports leads to success on the field of play, so be it. If not, let’s make sure that 10,000 hours of a kid’s life are not wasted.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.