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When young children show a large amount of skill or potential talent for a specific sport, they are often pushed to exclusively pursue that sport by family or coaches. It can be tempting for parents to throw all of their energy into helping their child become “the best they can be.” However, while more practice will help anyone become more proficient in any learned skill, research has shown that expertise in sport can still be gained even without early specialization or an exclusive focus on one sport (Baker, Cote, & Abernathy, 2003). In addition to not being necessary, specialization of sport has been shown to be detrimental and negatively impact children.
Along with the physical risks of overtraining and injury, there are also psychological strains that result from specialization. Youth athletes that are pushed to focus intensely on one sport can suffer from withdrawal and burnout (Coakley, 2009; Gould, 2010). Burnout is characterized by physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion and a loss of fun, meaning, or desire to participate in the sport. Athletes that specialize tend to practice or compete year-round. Brenner (2007) suggests that youth athletes should have an off-season; recommending that a two to three month break can help with injury recovery and prevent burnout.
Youth athletes that specialize are also affected by high levels of stress that comes from the extraordinary expectations from those “supporting” them (Wiersma, 2000). When a child becomes so enmeshed with a sport, their entire social support network will become very dense. A dense support network is one in which most individuals in them have the same goals or views. This means that the support network that the child will rely on may intentionally or unintentionally influence the child to continue in the sport despite his or her wishes. This may make it increasingly difficult for children to walk away from a sport if they feel they will let others down. A lack of perceived autonomy is inevitable if children feel they are not empowered to make their own choices and their lives are dictated by others.
Interestingly, this early decision to specialize may continue to impact their lives as the youth athletes age. Rusle and Limle (2013) found that those that specialized as youth athletes were less likely to participate in sport as young adults. A proposed explanation for this finding is that the perceived lack of autonomy and burnout linked with specialization may lead to a resentment of sport and therefore a lowered rate of sport participation later in life.
It is important for coaches and parents to be aware of this area of research. The recommendations that come from this body of research are for an off-season each year and sampling (where youth participate in multiple sports) instead of intense, focused specialization of a singular sport. It is also crucial to create an atmosphere where youth athletes feel comfortable to have a voice in their sport participation so that they enjoy their engagement in sport and physical activity and continue to view it positively throughout their lives.