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Overspecialisation in youth sport: Why balance is better

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Sports injury kids

Stop breaking your little athletes: Youth injury rates have risen along with intensive training and single-sport specialisation. Paediatric orthopaedic surgeries nearly doubled over the last decade, and some surgeries increased even more dramatically. For example, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics, there were nearly six times as many ACL reconstructions on paediatric patients in 2014 than there were in 2004.

High-performance behaviours break kids down, leaving 80% of players having a poor experience. We must not just cater to the 20% who may want to pursue a sport in performance environments longer-term. We need to question some of the traditions embedded in New Zealand sport to improve participation rates and reduce the risk of injury in kids.

For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialisation before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialisation include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age. Sports specialisation occurs along a continuum. Survey tools are being developed to identify where athletes fall along the spectrum of specialisation.

Tip #1 - One hour for every year in age

The amount of organised sport per week, both training and competition, should not exceed their child’s age. That means a 10-year-old should avoid doing more than 10 hours of organised sport per week, across all their sports and PE. At least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous exercise is beneficial – either play or organised sport.

Tip #2 - Balance is better

The more you expose your little athletes to an array of sports, the more motor patterns they will develop, and research suggests the fewer injuries they will incur compared to kids who have specialised.

"there has been a massive 60% surge since 2008 in sports-related injuries to kids aged 10 to 14, double the increase of any other age group." – Isaac Carlson, ACC's Head of Injury Prevention

Participating in other activities can also improve their performance in their sport of choice. The balance and body control required for dancing or yoga, for example, translates into better performance in football or hockey.

Trying new sports also prevents the risks and injuries that come with over-focusing on one sport. Balancing the demands on the body is important, especially early in your child’s athletic career. Over-specialisation is a growing trend in youth sports. And specialising in one sport too soon can be problematic. If your athlete is always using the same joints, muscles and ligaments, they may start to experience physical issues from overuse, and this can contribute to burnout.

Tip #3 - Develop independence

Ultimately, kids should participate in sports because they want to, not because their parents or friends want them to. It’s perfectly fine to encourage yours to try different sports or stick with the ones they’re already doing, especially early on. But as time passes, it’ll be better for them if you start to take your hands off the wheel.

Give your child the opportunity to make age-appropriate decisions when it comes to sports. At first, this may be as simple as giving them a choice between softball and football in the summer.

Tip #4 - Encourage life outside of sport

Allowing your child to 'free play' as they want outside of organised sport is vital. Free play is when children has full freedom to play in whatever way they want, allows them to express themselves in the way that they choose and helps them develop other skills such as problem solving and creativity.

Mix it up, keep it fun and balance is better

We all like to think we are harbouring the next Michael Jordan or Jonah Lomu, but in reality the chances are very slim. So don't make the odds smaller by overspecialising your kids which can lead to increased injury levels and falling out of love with sport. Ultimately we want to equip our youth with the best skills to successful healthy adults and providing them with a broad range of skills in and out of sports is a much better approach than focusing on a single sport.

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