Want Your Child To Be a Top Athlete? They may need to back off on sports.

One beautiful summer day, I was sitting by the pool watching our kids at swim practice. As usual, we moms were talking about life, our summer plans, and our kids. One of the moms started telling us about her high schooler, the state champion swimmer. She shared how busy he was going to events where college recruiters might take notice.

Then someone turned to me and asked, “Didn’t you get recruited for your college team?” I did. We started talking about fencing, and my Division 1 college team. “Have you started your boys in fencing yet?” she asked. That’s when my mom anxiety went into overdrive. Why hadn’t I started my boys with fencing? Wasn’t that the only sport where our family might have a genetic advantage? What if they missed out on their chance?

An hour later I was online doing research. I found a respected fencing coach from the city who was giving weekly classes in our area. I signed the boys up, in hopes that they would fall in love.

Young boy plays soccer.
Young boy plays soccer.

Parent anxiety and youth sports.

I’m a pediatrician who has given a TEDx talk about the parenting anxiety epidemic. How could I be so immediately panicked by one conversation? Like every other parent I know, I worry about the consequences of decisions I make. Could one missed opportunity could ruin my children’s lives?

Parenthood today is a ShouldStorm. A culture of intensive parenting that criticizes us and drives our anxiety. The ShouldStorm tells us we should be doing more for our kids, and that we are never doing enough. And there are few places the ShouldStorm rages with more fury than in the culture of youth sports. We are told we should start sports early, we should help our kids find their passion, and we should make sure they get every advantage.

Still, we wonder if we want to give up our lives to a 6-year-old’s sports schedule. That is until our child gets tapped for the competitive gymnastics team or the travel soccer club. How can we say no? Soon our family time becomes their sport. They love it and we are proud. Parental visions of a bright future dance in our heads. And all the other sports parents agree.

The cult of the early start.

Didn’t Tiger Woods start golf at age 4? Aren’t the best athletes the ones who played one sport with a singular commitment? It’s a popular idea, and one that NY Times bestselling author David Epstein calls the “cult of the early start.” A writer for Sports Illustrated, he too accepted this idea, until he looked closer. “I saw in the researching of my first book, The Sports Gene, how this plays out in the sports world. You know, when people get a chance to sample they end up with much better fit.”

Epstein knows a Canadian physiologist who works with pro-athletes and Cirque de Soleil. His friend told him about the situation among the best youth athletes. “There’s very little transfer from their junior national teams to the senior national teams. The best on the juniors are just kids who were coached in all the technical skills before everyone else, and everyone else has got to catch up. But he’d rather take the farm kids who have been doing stuff outside, and using their body in a lot of different ways, even if they don’t know the technical skills. He thinks they’re better equipped in the long run, to be Olympians and performers. He’s down on the specialization of sports. He says they get coached by pros and they learn all these technical skills, but they don’t learn general physical literacy. So it caps their development.”

As a pediatrician, I know this is correct, and it’s true in every area of child development. When it comes to learning, kids do better with broad experiences. They allow them to make connections holistically. It happens in the mind, and it happens with physical development. But focusing too much on one thing, whether athletics or robotics, has a way of limiting us.

Early sports specialization and injuries.

It started with some changes in the way pro sports leagues recruited athletes. Over time, the push for kids to specialize in one sport as early as possible has accelerated. Training regimens designed for pro athletes are now applied to kids in elementary school. These training programs produce impressive results, and the kids gain skills. However, as a pediatrician treating the injuries, it makes my skin crawl.

It’s a problem I see every day: young kids pushed beyond what their immature bodies can handle. When I was an athlete, we didn’t see many overuse injuries or stress fractures until we hit the college level. But now, I see them in second graders in my pediatric practice, and it’s almost become routine. What parents don’t know is that these are not simple childhood injuries that heal. They are the kind that cause wear and tear and lead to long term problems.

Let’s look at ESPN’s “‘These Kids are Ticking Time Bombs’: The Threat of Youth Basketball.” In the post, sports medicine experts shared their concerns about injuries. Expert Dr. Mike Clark told ESPN, “It’s getting significantly worse, because kids are specializing at such a young age and they’re not recovering.”

The experts are saying that kids’ bodies are broken down by the time they get to college. Regarding the pursuit of a scholarship, one NBA general manager told ESPN this. ”’The chase for that is real,’ he says, ‘but at what cost? Do you really want to have your kid limping around the rest of his life?’”

What should we do about this crazy increase in kids with injuries? The national agencies want parents to reduce their kids’ sports participation.

National agencies are begging parents to pull back on youth sports.

The National Association of Athletic Trainers is begging parents to listen. They’ve come out with new guidelines that could make a big difference.

The N.A.T.A. guidelines:
— Put off letting their kids specialize in one sport for as long as they can.
— Take 2 days off each week for rest.
— Do not play a single sport for more than 8 months a year.
— Play only one organized sport at a time.
— Time in practice plus competition should be less than or equal to a child’s years of age.
— When the season ends, take time to rest and recover.

Under these guidelines, there is still plenty of time to build great skills in a beloved sport. Yet I suspect it will be some time before this reduced training load is implemented.

Here’s what the president of N.A.T.A. told the NYTimes. “Single-sports specialization is bordering on an epidemic in terms of the risks it can pose, for physical injuries as well as the potential for negative psychological effects. There is a myth that it takes a single-sport specialization to succeed,” Mr. Lindley added. “In fact, we’re learning from research and anecdotal evidence that there is actually an opportunity for athleticism to improve if you expose the body to different sports and different movements.”

Who ends up successful in athletics? Early or late specializers?

I always assumed my story was an exception. After all, the other varsity starters on my D1 college fencing team had started the sport by age 8, but I started at 16. I’m not kidding. I started fencing in my junior year of high school. As a kid, I played soccer, softball, basketball, swim team and cross country. I must have been a great athlete right? I wasn’t. I never stood out at anything until fencing. Instead, I spent much of my childhood riding my bike and climbing trees.

Late specializers, who do lots of different activities, build skills that boost athleticism. All while helping to prevent injuries.

Girls huddle in lacrosse.
Girls huddle in lacrosse.

How old would you guess Kobe Bryant was when he started focusing on basketball? He was 15 years old. And he’s not alone: Michael Jordan was not good enough to make his high school basketball team. Even though Michael Jordan was legendary for his toughness, while in the NBA he took days off from practice and played golf in the off-season. Even more interesting, that was typical for NBA players at that time. When the season ended, they took a few weeks to rest and recover. After that, the pro players didn’t jump into intense training. They started light jogging and conditioning.

I know 8-year-olds who work harder than that, which is what Kobe Bryant has found as a parent. He had to pull his daughter out of her basketball club, because of too much training. Kobe wants her to build skills, but he thinks you can do that without overtraining. “‘You try to overload these kids and get them to be the best in one year,’ Bryant says. ‘It’s just absolutely ridiculous,’” he told ESPN.

Why it’s going to be hard for parents to make a change.

What happens when parents stand up to coaches and private clubs? Their kids get cut. There are so many kids whose parents buy into the cult of the early start, that coaches can find someone else. Certainly, I believe that most coaches don’t mean to be doing harm. They simply don’t have the training to understand growth plates and young bodies. They are doing what all the other coaches are doing.

But even if coaches recognize the problem, the financial model of sports clubs holds them back. Clubs will need to redesign how they make their money so kids can get the rest and sports rotation they need.

Meanwhile, what can concerned parents do? This brings up some very difficult decisions. As impossible as it feels, parents can pull kids back to the recreational level of sports. Or they can organize and make a stand with their coaches.

Sound impossible? Remember this: If you want your kids to be great at sports, they may need to do less sports.

In my next post, “How to Burn Out by Age 10,” I’ll look at the emotional cost of youth sports.

How can we take effective action under pressure? Forbes Contributor | TEDx Speaker | Pediatrician | PsychToday | ShouldStorm.com

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