ON THE SIDELINES: Specialized sports participation trending among youth

by Jan 13, 2017SPORTS di-ne-lv-di-yi0 comments





Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, was once dubbed the “greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav V of Sweden.  Thorpe excelled at many sports including football, basketball, baseball, track, and even ballroom dancing…yes, ballroom dancing.  The same year (1912) that he won Olympic gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon events, he won the Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Championship.

While Thorpe participated in many sports, the trend nowadays is for youth to participate in less and specialize.  According to a December 2016 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the average number of sports that youth (ages 6-17) participate in has dropped from 2.09 in 2013 to 1.89 in 2015.

“It’s a paradox, because we know that specialization is driving up participation intensity for many athletes, but those same factors also seem to be driving other people away,” Tom Cove, SFIA president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

This trend isn’t so prevalent here in Cherokee especially with the size of Cherokee High School.  There are several top athletes that participate in multiple sports.  To name just a few: Holden Straughan (football, basketball, track and field), Tori Teesateskie (volleyball, basketball), Tye Mintz (football, basketball, track and field), Raylen Bark (cross country, basketball), Isaiah Evans (football, track and field), Byron Locust (football, track and field), and many, many others.

In all, according to the SFIA report, participation in youth sports is up.  A total of 28.6 million kids participated in 2015 with some of the main team sports seeing positive growth including football (4.1 percent increase), baseball (4.3 percent increase) and basketball (1.5 percent increase).

Thomas Caruso, CSCS, RSCC, wrote an article on behalf of the National Strength and Conditioning Association entitled “Early Sport Specialization versus Diversification in Youth Athletes”.  In it, he outlines problems with early specialization, or niche participation, including overtraining and injury, burnout and mental fatigue, and sometimes an increased overall lack of interest.

“Diversification in sports at an early age has the potential to provide stimuli so that a child’s body can adapt and develop multiple motor skills that may crossover between sports,” Caruso wrote.  “However, only once the mental, physical, and social aspects of a child are fully developed can specialization be considered.”

Dr. Matthew Bowers, clinical assistant professor in the University of Texas Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, was quoted in an article published by the U.S. Youth Soccer Association entitled “Are kids being pushed to specialize in sports too soon?”

In it, Dr. Bowers stated, “Think about playing a piano.  If you had your kid playing the same note on the piano for 10,000 hours, that’s not necessarily going to make him or her an expert in playing the piano.  That’s the worry with specialization – if you are so focused from a young age, it’s going to lead to some potential complications later on; burnout leading to dropout, potentially.”

With childhood obesity rates on the rise, I think that participation in any sports is important and beneficial, but care must be taken as to the level and diversification of that participation so that kids don’t burnout before they reach their potential.

Cove summed it up best, “Experiencing the sports has to be the first step – now the key is to keep them and build interest in commitment to play.”