One-Sport Wonders: Should Your Child
Specialize in a Single Sport?
Sarah Bailey of New York City was a very active and athletic little girl. She began playing soccer when she was 6 years old, and over the years, she added tennis, golf, lacrosse, skiing and dance to her schedule. At 14, right before she entered high school, Bailey decided to specialize in soccer. "I loved soccer, and it got to a point where I was very good at it," she says.
Bailey's experience with soccer is a growing trend in a number of sports. An increasing number of adolescents are dropping multiple sports to specialize in a single sport. Whereas in the past, these children played different sports in different seasons, they are now playing one sport year-round.A Good Idea?
Bailey, who has also coached an eighth-grade club team, believes that it is a good idea, as well as necessary, for anyone who wants to be an elite athlete. "If you want to play at a highly competitive level, you shouldn't be playing two [or more] sports," she says.
Many parents and adolescents agree with Bailey's assessment, which is why so many young people have decided to pick one sport and focus solely on it. One reason for this is the expectation of (or hope for) a college scholarship. Another reason is that the child enjoys or excels at one sport above all others and chooses to specialize year-round in that particular activity.
The child should always take the lead in deciding whether or not to specialize in one sport. "If a child is passionate about one sport, that's fine," says Ron Quinn, associate professor of education at Xavier University and director of sports studies. But a child should not be forced to pick a sport. It's natural for young people to be undecided about the direction they want to take. "How can we ask a 10-year-old to pick one sport when most college students have trouble picking a career path?" Quinn says.A Bad Idea?
Many pediatricians, psychologists and educators believe that specialization in one sport can do more harm than good. "It is a mistake," says Michael Connor, professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach. "Kids need the preteen and early years to discover who they are."
Part of that discovery is allowing the child to develop naturally. Because kids mature physically, mentally and emotionally at different rates, a child who has little coordination in the sixth grade may end up growing into their body by tenth grade. Unfortunately, a child who stands out athletically at an early age may be pegged as a star, and coaches and parents may lock the kid into a particular sport for the duration of the school career.
This doesn't allow for the maturation process. The child who specializes in one sport early in life may turn out to be average at best when it comes time for varsity play or college scholarships, and the kids who do mature late are shut out from participating in a sport at which they might excel.
Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore, says that children often end up playing sports that don't match their physical abilities, which can also lead to injury. Another medical concern with sports specialization is overuse injuries. When children play different sports in different seasons, they are using a wide range of motions and muscles. But when they begin playing one sport year-round, the risk of overuse injuries increases.