Few would dispute the value to children of participating in sports, organized or otherwise. Being physically active and engaged in friendly competition is widely acknowledged to be good for children’s physical, mental and social well-being. It can foster discipline, cooperation and camaraderie as well as a good time.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, we were free to play games and sports that we chose or devised. We picked teams, made the rules and enforced them ourselves. No officials monitored our activities and no adults oversaw or commented on how well or poorly we played. Sure, there were occasional spats, but we learned how to resolve them on our own and get back to having fun.
But the concept of free play has since yielded to adult-controlled games and hopes for glory among many of today’s parents. The way youth sports is promoted in many parts of the country these days can be anything but good for the children who engage in them, according to leading experts who described their findings at the annual meeting of the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons in March.
Today, adults are most often the organizers and enforcers of youth sports, and too often they get in the way of their children’s best interests, these experts say.
Many parents encourage specialization in a given sport in which their children, often at very young ages, seem to show an interest or aptitude. Notions of college scholarships or professional glory often dance in the backs — or fronts — of parental minds, with some uprooting the entire family to give their kids a leg up.
As Dr. Charles A. Popkin, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, said at the meeting, “Sadly, what parents want and what parents hope to gain from their children’s participation in youth sports is often at a significant extreme to what the kids actually want.”
“Healthy competition is becoming unhealthy,” the orthopedics organization maintains. “More and more young athletes under the age of 12 are focusing on just one sport, and training year-round.” The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine defines specialization in youth sports “as engaging in a sport for at least three seasons a year at the exclusion of other sports.”
Too often, Dr. Popkin and his associates at Columbia and medical centers elsewhere find themselves treating the fallout from early sports specialization when the participants develop overuse injuries.
Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston and another of the conference’s speakers, told me, “I’ve been doing Tommy John surgery” — an elbow reconstruction procedure often associated with professional baseball players — “on more and more kids” who damaged their arms by pitching for too many hours in too many games and practices.
In a prospective study of nearly 12,000 youngsters with highly accurate histories of sports-related injuries, Dr. Kocher and colleagues found that early specialization in baseball, cheerleading and gymnastics increased the risk of injury among boys, and specialization in running, swimming, soccer and volleyball, as well as cheerleading and gymnastics, increased the injury risk among girls.
The injuries, reported by their mothers, all of whom are registered nurses, included stress fractures, tendinitis and knee injuries like tears of the anterior cruciate ligament, or A.C.L., that require surgical repair.
“Intense and repetitive training can lead to pediatric trauma and may require surgery to young shoulders, knees, elbows and wrists,” the orthopedic surgeons’ organization reported. It noted that in children whose bodies are still growing and developing, excessive training in a single sport does not give them enough time to heal properly.
Dr. Kocher said in an interview that children who grow up in the northern United States are more likely to become major league baseball players than kids from the South because they can’t play their sport year-round and are less likely to be injured.
But even when not injured, youngsters pressured to become star athletes often burn out and drop out, sometimes from sports altogether, Dr. Kocher said.
“Children who specialize in one sport early in life were found to be the first to quit their sport and ended up having higher inactivity rates as an adult,” Dr. Popkin reported, based on findings of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
He emphasized that “parental influence on sports specialization can be profound” and counterproductive if it doesn’t mesh with the child’s goals and interests. If children are to be successful at a sport, the drive to specialize and succeed must be intrinsic, of their own choosing.
“If they lack an intrinsic drive, if they’re not having fun, they’ll likely become frustrated and quit,” he said. “When parents hire personal trainers and coaches, there’s an expectation of success that can create a pressure-cooker scenario and lead to burnout.” In a survey of 201 parents of young athletes, 57 percent hoped their children would play in college or professionally, Dr. Popkin reported.
In his study of 303 college athletes, 98 percent currently playing one sport had previously played another organized sport before college. They didn’t begin to specialize until they were nearly 15, on average. He noted that Mariano Rivera, considered the best closing pitcher in baseball history, had played soccer, his favorite sport as a youth, before focusing on baseball in his late teens.
“You want kids playing sports through life,” Dr. Popkin said. “There are lots of benefits to later sports specialization, at some point in high school. The more sports kids play, the better they learn adaptability. They learn how to learn.”
It’s also important, he said, for kids to cross-train by doing multiple sports so that “they develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness and core strength” that can enhance their overall athletic ability.
Dr. Popkin said that with the exception of a few individual sports like gymnastics, tennis and fencing, kids do better if they specialize later. In his study of college athletes, only 18 percent reported specializing by age 12. Forty-five percent played multiple sports up to age 16, and there were no early specializers among those who played football, lacrosse or field hockey.
It’s a myth, Dr. Popkin said, that athletes who got college athletic scholarships or became professionals in most sports began specializing at early ages. “Early sports specialization is uncommon among N.C.A.A. Division 1 athletes for most team sports,” he reported.
His suggestions to parents: “Expose your children to as many activities as possible and support what they like. But if they’re doing more hours of a sport a week than their age in years, they’re overdoing it.
“A couple of months of the year, encourage them to do something else. If they play soccer, they could switch off to tennis; if they play hockey, they could try the track team. Cross-training helps their bodies and can keep them from burning out.”