Children aren’t professional athletes
© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD
Daniel K. wrote in a one-line topic suggestion: “The professionalization of Youth Sports and stress level in children”. It’s a big problem – younger and younger children are being expected to behave like professional athletes. They specialize in one sport, train almost as much as a full-time job, and are often expected to “tough it out”, or play through pain. Not only is this bad for kids’ bodies and minds, but it’s bad for their athletic futures. If you want your child to be a star athlete, early specialization and professionalization are not good ideas.
Gone are the days of pick-up games and Ultimate Frisbee on the street. Children and adolescents now play organized sports coached by parents, or sometimes professionals, who may or may not know what they’re doing, and may or may not have the same goals as their players. Kids, overall, want to have fun and compete and play. Coaches want to see their players shine and win. There’s increased pressure to play “for real” in a single-sport, sometimes year-round, and sometimes on multiple teams. That increases the risk of injuries (both serious and minor), and burnout. A kid who gets sick of playing is going to quit – as do 70% of children playing organized sports, by the time they’re 13.
The cold statistics: only 3-10% of high school athletes play at a college level; only 1% receive an athletic scholarship. About .03-.5% of high school athletes make it to the pros. The vast majority of youth sports are played by people who are in it to have fun, stay in shape, and work off stress.
Let’s say your child really does want to take it to the next level. What’s the best way to increase that slim chance of becoming a big-name athlete? It turns out that early specialization is exactly the wrong thing to do. Athletes competing in a wide variety of sports have fewer injuries and continue to play longer than those that specialize early, especially before puberty.
What about that “rule” you may have heard, that athletes need 10,000 hours in their sport to really get good at it? That’s a myth. The number was extrapolated from studies of chess players, and has no empiric evidence in any sport. Many excellent professional athletes start their main sport late, even in college; and most young people who play far more than 10,000 hours of a single sport don’t end up playing for college or the pros. By playing in a variety of sports, young athletes learn the basics of body movement, tracking, reflexes, and teamwork – all skills that can easily transfer to any specific sport, later.
Certain sports do seem to require early specialization for elite competition, probably because the nature of the competition favors bodies that aren’t mature. Figure skating, gymnastics, and diving have long favored young competitors. Still, that’s not necessarily a good thing – female competitors, especially, in these sports are at high risk of overuse injuries and the “female athlete triad” of bone loss, unhealthy energy metabolism, and delayed or absent menstruation. I’ve also been seeing an increasing number of young men with, essentially, eating disorders and related health problems related to similar sports situations.
Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young – but that doesn’t mean we ought to take it away from them. Let your kids be kids, and let them run and play and make up their own games. If they’d like to try organized sports, sign them up for a different sport each season, with a few months of breaks here and there. Later, if they want to, they can specialize and take it up a notch. Children shouldn’t be treated like professional athletes.