“Hey dad, can you read my essay?” That’s the words I heard. When I read it I could not be more proud of Princess 1.0. THAT and it’s my blog and I’ll post what I want to. I’m biased but this is a great read and thoughts from a high school athlete. Good for all of us moms and dads that run everywhere for every league, practice and match. Below are the thoughts of just one of those athletes. So proud of you Miss Emma!
Professional Athletes at Age Seven
Gymnastics, running clubs, basketball, track, swimming, diving, dance. I’ve seen it all, tried it all. I had been in gymnastics my whole life, spending hours upon hours in the gym. I would wear my leotard under my clothes to school then head straight to gymnastics after school only to get home at 8:30pm to eat, shower, and hit the hay. That was my life. The only life I’d ever known. But physically, emotionally, and mentally I could only handle that life for so long. After 10 long years of this lifestyle I decided to walk away. And because of this I got to try so many other sports and activities till I found the one I loved most: track. But as a child, it always made me wonder: why do we do this? Why do we slave ourselves to a sport to only wear ourselves thin? Is this even fun? After many years of contemplation of these questions through gymnastics, I learned that my passion was diminished when I was placed in the gym for the majority of my childhood, and missed out on life’s opportunities. In most cases, young athletes should therefore not specialize in one sport because ultimately it leads to overuse injuries, burnout and loss of interest in the sport, poor mental health, and poor relationships with authority figures.
Youth specialization is a very underground term that many people do not hear on a regular basis. Youth specialization can be defined as, “an athlete focusing on only 1 sport, usually at the exclusion of any other and often year-round… select or travel leagues start as young as 7 years of age” (Brenner). As described by this definition, specialization can be recognized as the focus of one child’s time and energy on developing adequate skill sets in one sport. Often this requires multiple hours, practices, and trips devoted to this goal. As stated by Joel Brenner, this can include children as young as 7 (some even younger) and can range all the way to age 12. After age 12, or after a child hits puberty, they are no longer considered a part of the range of “youth” who are specializing. In general, a simple definition could be a young child who spends year round training for one specific sport.
Firstly, young athletes should avoid specializing before puberty because it can lead to overuse injuries. Many doctors are seeing the amount of serious injuries rise among these young athletes to an unhealthy normality. Author Sumathi Reddy quotes Sports Medicine Specialist Paul Stricker who estimates, “a 25% to 30% jump in overuse injuries in athletes between the ages of 8 and 12 over the past five years” (Reddy). She even explains how Stricker saw a young boy come in for a stress fracture in his shin at the age of 8. This boy had been playing soccer for four different teams, and Stricker explains how his bones cracked under the weight of his constant running (Reddy). This story and these statistics are shocking. Knowing that many young children are developing chronic overuse injuries because the amount of exercise they manage is unsettling. Reddy reasons that specialization is not meant for younger children because their bodies are not developed or matured yet. During the period of puberty, around ages 12 to 14, Reddy clarifies how physical motor skills are fully developed by then, and how their “aerobic capacity” and endurance levels are more prepared for intensive training by then (Reddy). Therefore, through the research exhibited, most children younger than 12 are not ready for strenuous hours and repetition. Conclusively, because children are not fully developed yet, they are at risk of intense injuries if they choose to participate in youth specialization.
Even so, some may disagree because they argue that specialization allows for the athlete to build strong skill sets for the specific sport, which outweighs the risk of injury. Because children focus so much time and energy on one skill set, they are able to develop adequate skills for the game. In some sports, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating, and more, it is vital that children specialize from a young age if they want to be more developed than their competition (Brenner). Even some of the greatest athletes specialized from a young age and succeeded, for instance, Tiger Woods (Malina). Although some athletes may need to specialize from a young age to be successful, for most professional athletes this is not the case. Jane Brody displays a study done by Dr. Charles Popkins, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, which she reports, “his study of 303 college athletes, 98 percent currently playing one sport had previously played another organized sport before college. They didn’t begin to specialize until they were nearly 15, on average” (Brody). This supports the idea that most professional athletes who are successful did not specialize from a young age. Although some have specialized, almost all, 98% even, did not. This is because they are more mature, and they are physically and mentally able to build the same, or even better, skill sets than someone who starts at a more fragile, young stage of life. Ultimately, this suggests that building a skill set can be done even without specializing, which allows for avoidance of the negatives to youth specialization.
Despite being able to build skill sets, specializing can be dangerous because it can cause major burnout and loss of motivation for the specific sport. As described by Sports Psychologist Lenny Wiersma, burnout can be defined as, “‘the long-term result of emotional and/or physical exhaustion’ and occurs when ‘a previously enjoyable activity becomes an aversive source of stress’” (Wiersma). When an athlete decides to specialize, they have hopes of becoming elite and performing exceedingly well in the sport. But when they fall short of these expectations, and when training becomes too much for their bodies to handle, they experience “burnout”. The athlete then stops trying, because they may lack the motivation to push themselves. This lack of performance because of burnout is called overreaching. Overreaching has even reached the point that, “Several researchers reported over-reaching in 30% to 35% of adolescent athletes” (Brenner et al.). This shocking statistic highlights how over one-third of specializing children are hating what they are doing. The fact that these children are continuing to spend their lives participating in something they hate is very disheartening. Moreover, later in Brody’s article Dr. Popkins clarifies, “‘If they lack an intrinsic drive, if they’re not having fun, they’ll likely become frustrated and quit’” (Brody). This builds upon the argument that most children when pushed to their limits are defeated and begin to lose hope in the sport they used to love. In the end, specializing from a young age could be detrimental because it can lead to burnout among these athletes.
Moreover, young children should not be specializing because it is mentally burdening and socially draining. Wiersma expresses how many children who specialize may suffer from “social isolation” because of the burdening amount of time focused on the skill of their specific sport (Wiersma). Due to the excessive amount of training, time spent traveling for competitions, etc, many young athletes miss out on social life and youth living activities, which can be very detrimental for their mental health. For instance, “‘Many student-athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than non-student athlete adolescents’” (Flannagan). This fact can be very scary because so many children spend their lives focused on sports, and miss other opportunities. This was true for Isabella. Isabella tore her ACL from a lacrosse injury, and unfortunately missed out on a year of her season. Because she spent her whole life focused on lacrosse and didn’t know what to do without it, during this time off she developed an eating disorder (Flannagan). Her story illustrates how many young athletes might develop an unhealthy relationship with a sport, and therefore have an unbalanced sense of life and unbalanced mental well being. Ultimately, young children who specialize are burdened with many different stressors, which can take a mental toll on them.
Having said that, some people have a different perspective, which is that youth sports can create positive peer relationships within the sports they are involved in, as well as improve mental health. Wiersma writes, “Sport is considered an excellent environment for children to develop cooperative skills, prosocial behaviors, and close relationships” (Wiersma). This outlines where youth sports can be beneficial because it creates positive relationships between athletes, as well as builds crucial relational skills. Another author and co-authors publish the results of a Canadian study of the correlation of positive self-esteem and youth sports. Results showed that, “sports enjoyment, rather than sports participation per se, appeared to predict increased self-esteem” (Brenner et al.). This study supports the claim that sports can actually improve mental health, or how a child views themselves. Yet, it does reveal how in order to do so they must enjoy the sport. To a certain extent, yes, youth sports can be very beneficial to a child’s social reality and mental health. But, when the amount of activity dips into an unhealthy extreme, that is when the effectiveness and morality of youth specialization should be considered. Author Linda Flanagan expresses, “This professionalization has led to overtraining and exhaustion, which is central to the mental-health problems” (Flanagan). This statement demonstrates when sports specialization starts becoming unhealthy for a child. Yes, youth sports have many positive attributes to them, but when they become extraneous work for children it is unreasonable and unhealthy. For this reason, though there are many positives for a child in youth sports, accommodating specialization to a more realistic standard is more reasonable.
Finally, most specialization cases involve poor relationships with adults, parents, and coaches because of the stressors of youth specialization. The majority of the time, the relationships between adults and athletes are broken and twisted in some way. In the most common cases, parents are internally motivated to push their children to extreme limits because of their past successes, because of scholarships, because of ego, and more. Relationships can even be strained for children because they don’t want to let their parents down. More specifically, Flanagan emphasizes, “Some parents get their ego needs met through their kids. Fixated on their child’s athletic achievements, they can overlook the young person in front of them” (Flannagan). This sheds light on the, sometimes, wrong motives of parents who either want to relive their glory days in a sport through a child, or how parents can use their children to brag about themselves. This can lead to a broken relationship between the parent and their child, as well as the child feeling pressured to keep doing well or keep participating even if they feel burnout. Likewise, “In a survey of 201 parents of young athletes, 57 percent hoped their children would play in college or professionally” (Brody). Most parents push their children from a young age in hope that they would earn college scholarships in the future. This only leads to an unrealistic reality for most kids because they may fall short of this goal. Similarly, sadly some children are even manipulated and become overdependent on authority figures or coaches. As Robert Malina describes, athletes may be emotionally, physically, or mentally abused by coaches, as well as become dependent on them. He portrays how this gives children a broken perspective of life, and how this can affect how they live the rest of their lives (Malina). This sad truth depicts the reality of some children who choose to specialize, and can be prevented if children choose to specialize at an older, more mature age. All in all, authority figures in a child’s life play a huge role in how they perceive sports and life in general, especially while specializing.
However, just as some parents aspire for their children’s futures, specialization can create beneficial opportunities to be recognized by colleges and elite programs. One article states that, “Select or travel teams recruit youth for the purpose of competing at a higher level: they emerge approximately at the 10 to 12-yr age range” (Malina). This shows how specialization is vital in some people’s eyes because it can produce the opportunity to be seen for their possible potential. The same article establishes, “Discussions of talented male young basketball and football players dominate the media… Given the importance of visibility, lobbying by coaches and parents to have a child/player ranked is considerable” (Malina). This reveals, though only mentioning basketball and football, how through media and select programs coaches for elite organizations and colleges are able to view the talent among young athletes. Even though it may be an opportunity to be seen by top coaches, the reality is it is not the end all be all for athletes who want to be successful in the future. For example, “There were 322 athletes invited to the 2015 National Football League Scouting Combine, 87% of whom played multiple sports in high school and 13% of whom played football” (Brenner). This is just one of many examples of how being specialized in one sport year round does not guarantee more opportunity than someone who plays multiple sports. In reality, whether an athlete plays one sport or five, specializes or not, if they are talented, coaches will be able to see this potential, and will do whatever it takes to get the athlete’s attention. Ultimately, though specializing is one way to be seen by coaches and elite programs, there are many other opportunities to do so as well.
In conclusion, specialization can be damaging to most children because of the risks it entails. Because they are so young, children are at risk for serious injuries, as well as at risk of growing to hate their sport because of burnout. They could experience a blow to their mental health and social lives, which is majorly important to a child’s first memories of life. Lastly, they could easily be manipulated or have the possibility of establishing unhealthy relationships with adults. In the end, the child is the most important aspect to specialization. Not the sport, not earning scholarships, not being the best, etc. A person’s childhood is where they learn most rapidly and develop who they are and who they want to be while having fun. When a child chooses to specialize, these important things are stripped from them as they are beaten down by the excessive load of sports. In many cases, specialization can take something a child enjoys, and warp it into a miserable burden. No child should have to experience this type of trauma. Instead, we should let them be a kid. Let them play ball with friends, do flips in the backyard, kick the soccer ball around in the school playground. They shouldn’t have to grow up just yet. They should have the freedom to just be a kid.
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