Should kids specialize in one sport?
Posted by Dean Holden at April 9th, 2013
by James Mandigo, 2 April 2013
[Ed. note: James is the Co-Director for the Centre for Healthy Development in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University, and is also the current president of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea). He will be writing blogs about the importance of physical activity.]
Imagine for a moment that we let our children read only poems about apples. Think about all the other types of fruit they wouldn’t learn about, not to mention all the other wonderful forms of literature they wouldn’t have a chance to read.
Now imagine for a moment that we let our children participate in only one sport 12 months of the year. Think of all the different types of physical activities that they wouldn’t be able to participate in. They would also lack the skills and confidence to try other sports.
While the apple poem example is a situation we’d consider absurd, the latter is, unfortunately, all too common in many Canadian families.
As parents, we are constantly bombarded with messages that our children need to start specializing early if they are going to get a head start in life. Soccer parents feel pressured to get as much playing time as they can for their children to increase their chances of making the local travel team. Swimming parents feel pressured to make sure their son or daughter is in the pool every day of the week at 6:00 a.m., and to hire private swim coaches, in order to shave off that extra time before the next swim meet.
But does specializing in one sport at an early age benefit your child?
The opposite may actually be the case. Many research studies point to issues such as burnout, lost interest, overuse injuries, drop-out and social isolation as consequences of specializing too early at a young age in just one sport.
A number of research studies have also demonstrated that elite athletes participated in a wide variety of sports as children before they began to start specializing in one or two sports well into their adolescent years. Take the members of the 2012 Canadian Junior Men’s Ice Hockey Team. In a recent survey reported by Richard Monette, the average age these players started to specialize in ice hockey was 14. In addition, 73% of the players participated in competitive sports other than hockey, and they participated in an average of five other sports between the ages of five and 14.
Dr. Jean Côté from Queens University has identified the importance of children sampling from a number of physical activities that are fun and enjoyable for them. The benefits of participating in a variety of sports as opposed to specializing too early on just one sport can have a positive and long-lasting impact upon the healthy development of children and youth.
This approach to participating in a wide variety of sports and physical activities has also been strongly encouraged by some of Canada’s most famous and successful athletes. Wayne Gretzky, for example, was quoted in a Globe and Mail article in 2008 as having no interest in playing summer ice hockey as a kid because he couldn’t wait to go and play baseball or run track. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash is well known for transferring his skills in soccer and tennis to the basketball court. And Clara Hughes is the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the summer and winter Olympic games in cycling and speed skating respectively.
For the past decade, the Canadian Sport for Life and Physical and Health Education Canada organizations have been working with various sport, recreation, health and education organizations to encourage participation in a wide variety of physical activities. Just like how how learning the alphabet is the foundation to the development of literacy, developing skills across a wide variety of physical activities is the foundation for the development of physical literacy. And, just like children who are literate are more likely to read, children who are physically literate are much more likely to lead healthy and active lives.
So parents, take a deep breath and don’t feel guilty about not registering your son or daughter in the same sport all year round. Encourage them to play a bunch of different sports. Better yet, just let them play and have fun. It’s not only good for them now, but good for them in the future, as well.
James Mandigo is Co-Director for the Centre for Healthy Development in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University located in the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada. James is also the current President of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea) and former Ontario representative on the Physical and Health Education’s Board of Directors. He was a writer for Ontario’s 2010 Health and Physical Education Curriculum, and has conducted workshops with educators and practitioners locally and around the world pertaining to topics such as physical literacy, life skill development, teaching games for understanding and pedagogy. James has also worked extensively within developing countries. His current research and development project in El Salvador explores the role that sport and physical education have in the prevention of youth violence in that country. His research and development activities in this area have been funded by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council and Scotiabank International. James is the proud father of three children, Benjamin, Nathan and Lillian, and enjoys cheering on his wife, Karen, while she competes in triathlon and ironman events.