Academic Programs

Win or Lose? Settling the Score on Kids Specializing in Sport at an Early Age

Felix Yu is a second-year Adler University Chicago Campus student pursuing a Master’s in Counseling: Sport and Health Psychology degree. He shares valuable perspective on young children specializing in sport.

It’s plastered all over the media:

“Michael Phelps’s extraordinary achievements are a result of focusing on swimming at an early age. The only way to succeed in your arena is to start on day one and devote all time and resources to your sport.”

This pervasive mentality is negatively affecting American youth sports. While individuals like Michael Phelps have shown that this method can work, popular media fails to highlight the significant number of people who do not make it big this way. Also absent from reports is the detrimental impact specializing at an early age can have on individuals’ physical and mental health.

Parents encourage the specialization route in hopes that their children are picked up early by elite clubs. But these parents are often oblivious to the process’s resulting degree of physical and mental stress on their children.

One of the most significant consequences of sport specialization lies in overuse injuries — they account for 54.5 percent of all injuries for athletes between the ages of 6 and 18 years old (Brenner, 2007). A primary reason for this is the influx in training and competitions. As club leaders strongly encourage year-round training and an increasing number of games, matches and tournaments, young athletes have less time to recover. Reduced recovery time increases the propensity for overuse injuries. Blindly focused on winning, club coordinators and parents cannot see the risk. The athletes — those who are actually performing — are the ones suffering the constant pressure.

Unbeknownst to a large cross-section of America’s sporting society, sport specialization psychologically impacts athletes. They are immersed in an environment where triumph — not enjoyment, camaraderie, or health — is the priority. This often leads to athletes’ burnout over time (Jayanthi, Pinkham, Dugas, Patrick, & LaBella, 2012; Mostafavifar, Best, & Myer 2013). Then what? Well, the fatigued competitors likely end up abandoning their sports.

So, how can this change?

It starts with parents and coaches. They need to be educated about the physical and mental impacts of sport specialization. Failing to look out for children’s well-being places them at risk of injury and psychological burdens in the short- and the long-term.

Increasing children’s participation in a variety of sports will also decrease negative outcomes. Playing multiple sports, rather than specializing, can reduce cases of injuries and dropouts. However, not every family can financially support that variety. Let’s pair this fact with clubs and organizations offering enticing scholarships in exchange for year-round participation. It is critical, then, that parents learn through educational forums about the negative effects of constant training prior to pursuing scholarships. Such forums will not be enough, though. Stakeholders also need to work with nonprofit organizations or other groups that are open to the idea of creating affordable multiple-sport programs.

My passion to help the community has substantially grown since arriving at Adler University, and I’m fueled to help alleviate this epidemic. Growing up in Australia, empathizing with individuals came naturally. I was immersed in an accepting, multicultural society. I encountered people from all walks of life; learning their customs, interests and cultural complexities on a daily basis. But, in a way, I took these wonderful relationships for granted. Adler’s sport and health psychology program has helped me grasp the potential positive impact I can have on others by learning, and effectively applying, fundamental lessons from my own life’s interactions — experiences that I previously undervalued.

Learning about empathy and how to forge strong relationships with clients has made me more in tune with my surroundings. And exposure to American society has enhanced awareness of my prejudices, stereotypes and biases. Being more conscious about the community, complemented by my own sporting experiences in Australia — soccer and cricket, to name two — has solidified my passion to reduce the sport specialization’s negative impact on youth in America.