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Early Sports Specialization Can Interfere With Healthy Child Development, Lead to Social Isolation

One of the principal reasons early specialization in a single sport and playing on a highly-competitive travel or select team at a young age is a bad idea is that it can interfere with healthy child development:

Being on a select team often requires a year-round or near year-round commitment and extensive travel. If you allow your child to participate she can end up socially isolated from her family, peers, and the larger community. (Weirsma, 2000). The athletic role can become so consuming and controlling that childhood essentially disappears. (Malina, 2010; Mostafavifar 2013).

Family chasing after soccer ballEarly specialization and intense participation on select teams, say child psychologists, may interfere with normal identity development, increasing the risk that a child will develop what psychologists call a one-dimensional self-concept in which she sees herself solely as an athlete instead of sports being just a part of who she is. There is also an increased risk that academics will take a backseat to athletics.

Many experts believe that if your child waits to play on a select team until sixth grade or later, and waits until high school to specialize in a single sport, he is likely to be better adjusted and happier, have a more balanced identity, and less likely to be better adjusted and happier, have a more balanced, and less likely to have an identity crises when his competitive sports career ends, as it is likely to do after high school. This is because the negative effects of failure in one sport are far less when a child experiences success in other sports or areas of life.

A child may be physically ready to specialize in a particular sport and love the sport, yet be too immature emotionally to handle the stress of dealing with teammates (especially if they resent her athletic ability) or how to exhibit good sportsmanship in the cauldron of intense competition. Specializing in a sport can take an emotional toll, both due to the increased stress of competing at a high level and because coaches at this level tend to be more demanding, sometimes to the point of being emotionally abusive.

Studies show that talent development involves the acquisition of a mature personality during the teenage years-a personality that allows the athlete to cope with all the opportunities and obstacles she will face as an elite athlete. Playing at higher levels is likely to leave very little time for other activities, like family time, religious activities, socializing with friends, or even homework. Until high school, a child may not be emotionally mature enough to appreciate the sacrifices that she will need to make in terms of time and energy.

Like early specialization, allowing your child to "play up" if he has skills comparable to the older players - on the theory that moving up the competitive ladder as fast as he can is the best approach - is often not a good idea from a child development standpoint. Oftentimes the child's emotional and social maturity will not match that of the older players. Parents should exercise caution: research has shown that it is usually best for your child to play with kids of the same age rather than push them up the ladder to play with older, usually more mature players.

1.  Malina, R. Early sport specialization: Roots, effectiveness, risks.  Current Sports Medicine Reports 2010;9, 364-371.

2.  Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems?  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061.  

3.  Weirsma LD. Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations.  Pediatric Exercise Science. 2000;12:13-22. 

 Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.  

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