by Athletics Director and Upper School teacher Rob Smith
Sports specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports. Of course, variations of this definition exist, with the most common variations usually about what volume of training occurs and what constitutes the term intense. For our purposes, let’s view the word “intense” as the training that occurs for the purpose of skill development and improving performance as opposed to “enjoyment.”
The position of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on specialization is the following, “Children involved in sports should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills.” They also found that “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.”
The North American Society for Pediatric Exercise defines “sports enjoyment, or fun in children’s terms, as the most important and most studied positive emotion in youth, adolescent, and elite sport.” They have found that “fun was one of the most important reasons given by athletes for choosing to participate in sports, and lack of fun was a prime explanation for dropping out.” Essentially, sports enjoyment is the athlete’s positive emotional response to involvement in sports that encompasses generalized feelings such as fun, pleasure, liking, and love.
Too many times, I feel like when I talk to Upper School students there is an inordinate amount of time dedicated to one sport in particular. As our kids get older, there is more pressure to be on multiple teams. I recently asked an eighth grade soccer player, how many games do you play in a year? She had to go home and do the math! Her answer was 85 games this year. She plays town travel, club soccer, and for Pike. I was awestruck. She participated in Pike practice 2-4 practices per week, club practice twice a week, and travel practice was twice a week. So, that’s 8 hours of practice each week with multiple games on the weekend.
The hours are a lot, yes, but I was more worried that during the Fall, she was playing soccer every day. This is a dangerous combination that doesn’t allow for the body to rest and can lead to overuse injuries. When I asked another student athlete about hockey, she said she played 65 hockey games in a year. I didn’t even ask about practices.
So, in the short run, it may seem like we are doing what is best for our children in specializing in one sport and upping the ante. But, the reality is, only 1 percent of high school athletes receive athletic scholarships. The other reality is that overuse injuries account for 50 percent of the injuries in middle and high school students.
One of my goals as athletic director is to bring back the enjoyment of sports. Too many times, kids ask when sports are over and are not excited for them to begin. Kids need a break. Not a break from sports, but a break from the grind of the same sport year round.
Multi-sport athletes often can develop increased speed, agility, and flexibility. It also allows students to use different sets of muscles in new combinations, providing rest for the commonly used muscles in any given sport. Besides this cross-training benefit, early sports diversification provides young athletes with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promotes overall motivation. Quite frankly, youth sports play a huge role in the personal development of children while providing valuable lessons and life skills.
I love coaching at Pike – I want my student-athletes to enjoy themselves and to show up for games and practices. I want them to have fun. Pike sports give students choices, a feeling of belonging, and an opportunity to play on a team with their friends. A bus ride home after a loss has the same great energy as a bus ride after a big win. These kids do not care about the score, and why should they? It’s middle school! There are no state championships, no playoffs, and nothing on the line.
We’re teaching effort, determination, and perseverance skills. We’re teaching students how to overcome setbacks, deal with failure, and come to realizations about themselves. All these things are important to the cognitive development of the adolescent. Students athletes get to practice not only athletic specific skills, but leadership, communication, and respect. This variety of skills demonstrates how sports provides a diverse range of competencies that are advantageous to both the sports setting as well as in other areas, such as academics and other extra-curricular activities.
I urge each and every kid to play at least one sport here at Pike. Better yet, play three! One of Pike’s tenets is to develop a joy of physical activity. Participating in athletics at Pike is one of the best ways to do this while also developing personal, interpersonal, and sport-specific skills.
I look forward to seeing your children out there on the fields, the courts, and the ice. Go Pike!
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. (2000). Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics, 106(1), 154-157.
American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (2013, April 23). Effectiveness of early sport specialization limited in most sports, sport diversification may be better approach at young ages.
Scanlan, T. K., Babkes, M. L., & Scanlan, L. A. (2005). Participation in sport: A developmental glimpse at emotion. In J. L. Mahoney, R. W. Larson, & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs (pp. 275–309). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit pikeschool.org to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership. To learn more about admission to The Pike School, visit our Admission page.