In high school, I played three sports: cross country, swimming and track. Being a multi-sport athlete could be tough; at the beginning of each season, I would struggle to keep up with my teammates who trained year-round. I almost certainly would have been a faster swimmer or runner if I had chosen to specialize and join a year-round team. Yet, participating in multiple sports, as well as non-athletic activities, was incredibly important to maintaining my physical and mental health in high school, preventing injuries and burnout. To this day, I am grateful to have had such wonderful, flexible coaches who did not push me to specialize.
However, many kids are not so lucky as young athletes are increasingly pushed toward early specialization and high intensity training. These trends have caused a significant decline in youth sports participation — in 2018, only 38 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 played sports, down from 45 percent in 2008 . Specialization can lead to overuse injuries and burnout, while expensive private lessons and travel teams can exclude some families. In order to combat this worrying trend, coaches, parents and sports leagues must create more opportunities for kids to have fun when playing a variety of sports.
Numerous studies document the link between specialization and injury, especially overuse injuries: those caused by consistent overtraining. Researchers at the Orthopedic Residency of New York and WellSpan Sports Medicine found that professional baseball players who specialized early were more likely to be seriously injured during their career. A team at UC San Francisco and UC San Diego found similar results in professional basketball players. In fact, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine released a statement in 2014 naming early specialization as a critical risk factor for overuse injuries and burnout for young athletes.
Furthermore, many children are required to commit significant amounts of time to their sport, limiting their opportunities to participate in other activities. According to the Utah State and Aspen Institute survey, the average child spends about 12 hours per week playing sports, but some parents reported their children playing up to 60 hours a week. While some kids may be motivated to spend their free time practicing, this level of commitment can cause sports to seem like work rather than recreation.
Additionally, the cost of youth sports continues to increase. Success — particularly for those vying for the attention of college recruiters — involves travel tournaments, private lessons and sports camps. According to the Aspen Institute survey, the average family spends $2,292 annually on sports, with some families spending as much 10 percent of their income on their childrens’ budding athletic careers . Therefore, it’s unsurprising that children from low income families are half as likely to play sports as children from families that make $100,000 or more a year .
Injury, burnout, rising costs and a feeling that sports are “just not fun anymore” are leading more and more kids to quit — the average child spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11. This is a worrying trend, especially as childhood obesity rates continue to rise, in part due to insufficient exercise. Additionally, playing organized sports teaches kids life skills such as teamwork and discipline.
Parents, coaches and sports leagues all have important roles in encouraging kids to keep playing sports. Parents should encourage children to explore a variety of interests, coaches should be flexible and avoid pressuring children into early specialization and sports leagues should create more affordable, low time commitment opportunities for kids to play. And ultimately, everyone should prioritize fun and personal growth over medals and trophies.
Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.