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There are many factors that have led to this issue. The professionalization of sport is a key factor. Sport is a global phenomenon and technology has driven the rising popularity of professional sports that can be viewed at any time. So we have more access to sports around the world and elite athletes are elevated to superstar status.
Who is driving the need for early specialization?? Is it the sports themselves, with many academy programs promising parents to fast track their child’s success. Is it the parents, who naively want to give their child the best possible chance to be the best. Is it the child who desperately wants to please the parents by being the best??
Unfortunately the reality is that a very small percentage of athletes will make it to the upper echelon in sport. Therefore we must keep things in perspectives for our juniors.
The most important thing for juniors are the benefits of playing multiple sports. This will establish foundation motor skills and movement patterns that allow the growing athlete to develop a diversity of skills and experience. We need to consider that these benefits are more than physical, with sport providing opportunities for social, emotional and mental development.
Early specialization can result in:
- Increased injury risk
- Fatigue, burnout and dropout
- Anxiety issues
When a developing athlete focuses on large volumes of sport specific practice they become vulnerable to overuse injuries. This is exacerbated if they have not been screened to assess their movement patterns and function. Individual biomechanics also come into play. When there are multiple factors that are not performing at optimal levels it is not a matter of if it will result in injury, it is when.
Despite many juniors athletes being driven and motivated there is increasing data on the rising cost of junior sports injuries. This is a multi-faceted problem that is financial, emotional and mental. An injured athlete can be a very vulnerable individual. Repetitive injury issues can easily lead to dropout from sport.
Technology has provided our younger generation with a multitude of opportunities and most simply cannot function without it. However we are also seeing record levels of anxiety and mental health issues.
Early sport specialization can increase the risk of anxiety in many juniors. Focusing on performance outcomes too early can exacerbate anxiety. One of the key lessons in sport is that we need to devote time to practice the process, and our ability to cope with victory and defeat are crucial.
Often early specialists are vulnerable to excessive competition schedules that further elevate the risks. For example, junior tennis, basketball and soccer athletes are subjected to rigorous tournament schedules that exacerbate the problems.
So even if you have a talented junior athlete that you believe can be the next elite superstar, slow down. Take the time to allow them to develop physically, mentally and emotionally, that’s the fundamental aspect of growth. By all means keep them in sport but also focus on variety and balance in their lives.