This year, my 8-year-old daughter, Danielle, decided she wanted to play soccer. She dabbles in dance and tennis, so why not let her try out another sport. But signing her up proved to be a bit challenging.
Since Danielle had little experience, there weren’t many teams for newbies like herself. Many kids her age were already playing year-round competitively—at age 8! What happened to playing just for fun and learning? Had my third grader already missed the boat?
The benefits of participating in multiple youth sports
We’ve long known the benefits of participating in youth sports. It allows children to build confidence, learn teamwork, socialize and build friendships—all while having fun. However, participation in multiple sports can also have physical and psychological benefits as well, said Jamie Pardini, PhD, a neuropsychologist with Banner – University Sports Medicine and Concussion Specialists in Phoenix.
“The primary physical benefit of playing multiple sports is reduced injury risk, particularly overuse injuries,” she said. Studies also have shown participation in multiple sports helps develop a broad range of movement and motor skills, which has been related to improved performance and confidence—on and off the field or court.
“As well, when kids play different sports, they are exposed to different peer groups in activities that require different types of teamwork and collaboration—skills that transfer well into adulthood,” said Dr. Pardini.
With all these positives, however, there seems to be some drawbacks to youth sports participation, namely the fast-tracking of kids into specialization. Whether because of a child’s own desire or the urging of a parent or coach, the focus for many children has shrunk to one singular sport. Today, around one-third of school-aged athletes focus on a single sport—and in some cases on multiple teams throughout the year.
While some specialization is eventually necessary to attain elite performance, could specializing at such a young age do more harm than good? Yes, say many sports medicine doctors and experts like Dr. Pardini, when it leads to rigorous year-round training in one sport.
The mental health drawbacks of playing one sport
Youth athletes are not tiny adults. Their brains and bodies aren’t fully developed yet, which means they may not be able to handle the competitive and strenuous nature of playing a single sport year-round—mentally or physically. [Read “Kids and Sports: Preventing Overuse Injuries.”]
“Unfortunately, early specialization can be linked to negative psychological as well as physical effects,” Dr. Pardini said. “This hyper-focused, year-round training is associated with stress, burnout and even early withdrawal from sports. These athletes experience less fun and perceive increased criticism.”
Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka are just a few Olympians and elite athletes who have highlighted how stress, intense pressure and competing at the highest level have impacted their mental health.
In addition, early specialization may also restrict an athlete’s identity development and may have the potential to isolate them. “They may miss out on other normal, important activities, such as family events, non-sporting activities with peers and developing friendships with kids who have diverse interests outside of their sport,” Dr. Pardini said.
Addressing single sport specialization at an early age
While some coaches and parents push that practice makes perfect when it comes to excelling in a sport, many professional athletes and collegiate coaches have emphasized the dangers, and are now more openly touting the benefits of playing multiple sports in driving strength and performance.
Take American soccer player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Abby Wambach, who said playing basketball throughout the year helped boost her soccer career. NFL quarterback Tom Brady has also said he benefited from playing multiple sports growing up, and lamented that specialization with young athletes might cause burnout. Both are proof that early specialization isn’t the only route to success.
However, if you or your child are considering the jump to a more competitive, year-round league, here’s how to ensure it’s a positive experience.
- Delay until late adolescence: This will maximize your child’s chances of success while minimizing the risk for overuse injury or burnout.
- Incorporate many sources into the decision-making process: Early specialization often leaves young athletes with a reduced sense of choice and intrinsic motivation (doing it just for fun or the challenge) when choosing a sport. Therefore, it is extremely important to consider the short- and long-term impact on your child’s overall physical, emotional and developmental wellbeing. Given that most youth athletes do not continue on to play college sports and even fewer to other elite levels of play, you should view the opportunity to participate in sports more broadly.
- Keep participation at healthy levels: It’s best to take a breather from competitive sports with at least one to two days off each week and a few months per year. Switch up two different sports or just allow your child to have fun while staying active.
- Pay attention to your child: If their passion for the specific sport has waned or you notice they are more stressed and overwhelmed during practice and games, check in on them. It may be that this sport is no longer a good fit.
- Foster health, growth and enjoyment: With the right coach, the right balance and a positive attitude, sports participation can offer health, social and emotional benefits that can translate into other short- and long-term life skills and activities.
It’s okay to try out lots of different sports, even if there is one sport they excel at the most. Your young athlete will benefit from it, mentally and physically, and it may make their overall athletic performance that much better.
The good news for Danielle is she found a rec soccer league and is really enjoying herself. Although they may not win every game, she’s making lots of friends and learning valuable skills. Who knows, maybe someday this could lead to something, but for now, Danielle will continue to play the field … or court—or whatever she wants to try out next.