One-Sport Wonders: Should Your Child Specialize in a Single Sport?

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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.

"The knee of a child or adolescent is different than that of an adult, due to the presence of growth plates of the distal femur and proximal tibia," says Dr. Richard Hinton, orthopedic surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, Md. The immature musculature of the knee less effectively stabilizes the knee, the ligaments resist stress less effectively and the articular cartilage is predisposed to repetitive trauma and injury. "Overuse injuries in the knee are often disregarded as growing pains," he says.

According to Dr. David Marshall, of Children's Health Care in Atlanta, some of the more common overuse injuries, other than problems with the knees and growth plate, include shoulder injuries such as rotator cuff and tendonitis (baseball and swimming), elbow injuries (particularly seen in youth baseball) and foot injuries like stress fractures (usually found in running sports).

Preventing Problems

"Kids need to know their bodies' limits, and not be afraid to tell someone about the injury," Dr. Marshall says. "When children are specializing in a sport, they are less likely to tell anyone they are hurt for fear of losing important playing time." Some children try to play through the pain because of the high competitive level of their teams. Too often this "suck-it-up" attitude is reinforced by coaches who don't want to lose. An injury that isn't allowed to heal, however, can end an athlete's career.

Dr. Jim Neilan of Sports Care in East Hanover, N.J., says that if the child insists on specializing, there are ways to help prevent overuse injuries. "Make sure there are proper equipment, proper coaching, and proper training available," he says. "Parents need to investigate all the risks factors before participation."

Keep in mind that there is no one sport that is best. The key is moderation. "One activity a season is a good rule of thumb," Quinn says. He also advocates for some time off, not just to let the body recover, but also to prevent burnout.

In the long run, sports should be about fun. As long as the child enjoys playing the sport, and moderation, as well as immediate attention to injury, is respected, specialization can be a positive experience.

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