Pressures on youth athletes to specialize

Pressures on youth athletes to specialize

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Kenosha Unified logo

Kenosha Unified logo

Sport specialization occurs when youth athletes focus solely on one sport, typically year-round, and excludes all other sports.

The National Institute of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics have established a link between specialization and injury, which shows student-athletes are 81% more likely to experience an overuse injury than those who play a variety of sports.

So why is specialization on the increase? The pressure on athletes to specialize is both internal and external, as Karla’s story will reveal.

At 6 years old, Karla ran circles around the other kids in the Little Kickers recreational soccer league. Dale, her coach, recognized Karla’s talents. He decided to start a U8 travel team. He spoke to Karla’s parents first, hoping to launch this potential star’s athletic career.

At first, Karla’s parents were reluctant. Getting her involved in travel sports at such a young age seemed like a huge commitment, but Karla’s parents also didn’t want her to fall behind, so they committed to Dale’s new club.

Dale took the team to outdoor tournaments in the fall and spring and they participated in an indoor league through the winter. During the summer, Dale encouraged parents to send the girls to camps and clinics.

Karla participated in other activities like dance, but it became difficult for her and her family to juggle the commitment to soccer with anything else.

Karla was often too tired to give her best at dance rehearsals, which followed soccer practice. At 9 years old, Karla dropped out of dance.

Soccer identity

By 13, Karla’s identity as a soccer player became ingrained. She filled her first Instagram account almost exclusively with soccer pictures. Christmas and birthday gifts always involved a soccer theme. Her bedroom was filled with soccer decor. Karla’s friends were soccer players; her parents’ friends were soccer parents.

As Karla entered high school, elite soccer clubs began recruiting her. Their websites marketed pictures of former athletes signing their commitment letters to various college soccer programs.

Karla’s high school coaches encouraged her to play at the highest level possible to accelerate her development. Although Karla enjoyed playing with her friends on Dale’s team, she left them to play with a nationally known program out of the big city. Karla’s parents knew that less than 2% of high school athletes earn an athletic scholarship, but the chance to earn money for college seemed worth the extra commitment.

Karla had planned to play high school basketball, but she and her parents soon discovered that it would be nearly impossible to coordinate the travel time to soccer practices and games with the high school basketball schedule.

By the time Karla entered her sophomore year, she was specializing in soccer. Her parents loved to watch her play, but they worried constantly about the risks of ligament tears and concussions. Many of the girls on the team were in physical therapy for tendonitis or some other chronic injury.

Soccer dominated Karla’s life. Her childhood friends became more distant, and she struggled to maintain a B average in school despite being capable of much better grades. By the end of her junior year, soccer became a chore. Karla had a hard time remembering a time when she loved to play.

Dangers of specialization

If you examine the pressures that lead athletes like Karla to specialize, you will find few villains. Most decisions on the path to specialization even seem wise — at the time.

But as many athletes and their parents can attest, sport specialization may ultimately cause physical and psychological harm to children.

Not all stories will end like Karla’s, but it is important to weigh all aspects when making such important decisions regarding athletic decisions and impacts it may have on children.

To learn more about specialization risks, and healthier alternatives, please visit https://www.nfhs.org/articles/playing-multiple-sports-reduces-injury-risk/.

John P. Ruffolo is Bradford High School athletic director.

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