Rise in Youth Sports Specialization Limits Branson Athletics Program

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Sports Medicine Trainer Amanda Bovin helps Branson athletes who have injuries, both from overuse and from fluke accidents.

Marin Academy junior Alex Paff found out in July that she had a stress fracture in her foot. Alex does ballet and her stress fracture was so bad that she could not perform in The Nutcracker, her biggest show of the year. “In the fall, I was unhappy and my grades suffered because I couldn’t do what I loved,” she said. “My whole life outside of school was centered around ballet so it was really hard to not be able to dance and be with my friends.”

Alex explained that her injury was because of overuse.  “It’s possible if I cross trained I could have prevented it,” she said. She stopped swimming in sixth grade when she chose to focus all of her energy on ballet. “If I wanted to continue swim team I was going to have to swim all year to be good and succeed,” she added. “My parents put pressure on me to choose.” Even in middle school, Alex and her parents decided that she had to choose one activity if she wanted to desired results athletically. After her injury this past summer, she only began working her way back to ballet in January, and she still can only participate in some parts of class and rehearsal.

Like Alex, many youths feel pressure to choose one sport, which can lead to overuse injuries. At Branson, even though anyone can play practically any sport no matter the individual’s skill level, in order to excel in a sport or activity after Branson, many student-athletes feel they must specialize at some point. According to members of the youth sports community, youth sports are becoming increasingly demanding, which can force kids to focus all their energy on one activity at a young age. (Members of the sports community see “early specialization” as deciding to play a specific sport before adolescence.) Studies have shown that specialization can lead to overuse injuries and burnout, both of which reduce the chances that an individual will remain active, and therefore healthy, into adulthood. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association reported that many coaches and parents push kids to choose a sport, often in the hopes that the child will be able to get an athletic scholarship to college. The same survey found that many people base athletic success on whether or not someone receives an athletic scholarship. Despite specialization increasing an individual’s skill level, in reality, many college-level athletes and Olympians played multiple sports growing up, as reported by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play.

Although the Branson Athletic Department does not encourage student-athletes to pursue one sport exclusively, for some specialization is inevitable. “Currently, we might have two or three kids instead of twelve to fifteen kids playing three sports a year,” Athletic Director Anthony Thomas stated. He added that last year Branson had freshman boys basketball and soccer teams, and this year “we still managed to have a boys freshman basketball team,” but not a freshman soccer team, despite soccer’s move to winter. “Specialization will lead us to losing some kids and not being able to field teams,” he added.

Specialization isn’t responsible for all of Branson’s challenges when fielding teams. Even though some may think it ended the girls softball program, Mr. Thomas said, “we have not had the numbers for softball in three years [because] there has been no real interest. We field sports on an interest level that can be sustainable.” Branson’s size, however, can be a plus. “I feel like there are a lot of opportunities to start a new sport or work on one you’ve already played,” said sophomore Ella Boscoe.

Even though limiting oneself to only one activity can be detrimental mentally or physically, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, “the research supports a strong positive relationship between the accumulation of practice and elite performance in sports.” It’s understandable therefore, that those who want to be really good at a sport believe they must eventually specialize. However, experts say that focusing exclusively on one sport at a very young age is not necessary; rather specializing at some point helps individuals to reach their athletic potential.

Of late, the time at which kids decide to play only one sport has been getting earlier and earlier, as reported by Marin Magazine. Mr. Thomas said that “the [kids] who specialize are the ones who want to play at the next level.” Parent of five David Dunn said, “most kids that I know and coach are down to, at most, two sports by 4th grade.” He continued to say, “many kids [in Danville] are full time soccer players at age 8.  What happens at age 12 when [someone] decides [he or she] does not like soccer that much?”

Although Mr. Dunn’s children have yet to specialize, they know many families in which the young children already play only one sport. Many people in the Branson community, especially adults, believe that kids pursuing greatness in only one activity hinders childhood development and limits opportunities for the future. “I personally believe that children should be encouraged to participate in a variety of activities and develop a range of skills, rather than specialize,” said Director of Dance Georgia Ortega. Sports Medicine Trainer Amanda Bovin said, “I think it is great that high school athletes have a passion for one thing, but I think it is good personal growth and [it’s] physically beneficial to play more than one sport because [high schoolers] are still developing.”

As found in a report done by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, early specialization in sports can lead to an increased risk of a repetitive strain injury. Ms. Ortega defined an overuse injury as one that “develops over time and is due to repetitive stress on muscles, tendons, joints, and bones.” She added, “if you are not allowing time for recuperation there is a greater risk of injury.” Ms. Bovin commented that “overuse injures, from kids specializing in one sport” are more common now than they used to be. These injuries can also occur again and again if not taken care of properly. “Repetitive injury syndrome is a huge deal, especially in girls,” said Mr. Thomas.  “Nearly half of injuries sustained by middle school and high school students during sports are overuse injuries,” according to Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Longtime Branson soccer coach Tom Ryan said, “the use of the same muscle groups on the same playing surface will take its toll over time.” When kids play only one sport, they focus their attention on certain muscle groups that pertain to their sport, often leaving behind muscle groups that are equally important.

According to the Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association, specialization causes kids to put unnecessary pressure and stress on themselves, highlighting that there are mental as well as physical drawbacks to playing only one sport. A common effect of limiting oneself to a specific activity is burnout, which Mr. Thomas described as when “all of a sudden you don’t love the sport anymore.” As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, high school football coaches Patrick Walsh and Ken Peralta said, “when a youngster focuses on one sport year-round, it becomes a job, not a pastime.” Not only are there negative effects of playing one sport, but playing multiple sports can positively impact mental health. Mr. Walsh and Mr. Peralta continued to say that “athletes’ grades are often higher in-season … because students are forced to budget their time better. Because of practices and games, they have little or no time to waste. What’s more, they know that if they fail … academically, they won’t play.”

According to a study done by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, limiting participation time is one way to prevent overuse injuries. There are some other prevention methods, however, that do not require taking time off. “Yoga enhances body awareness through inward concentration on the breath,” said Ms. Ortega. “This use of breath is intimately connected with our thoughts, and affects the nervous system, bringing about mental clarity and stress relief.  By slowing down, really tuning in, and listening to your body you become aware of imbalances and how to respond to muscle tightness or weakness.” She added that in order to stay healthy, one must “always warm up and cool down properly, incorporate strength training, core strengthening like Pilates, and vary [one’s] routine with aerobic, and anaerobic exercise.” Despite these prevention strategies, according to Mr. Thomas, on the whole, “other than just educating parents on the dangers of specialization, there’s not a lot to combat it.”

Although many people agree that youth specialization in sports is detrimental to the individual, lots of children still decide, or their parents decide for them, to focus all their energy on one sport at a very young age. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association reported that many parents want their kids to work on only one activity so that they have the opportunity to get an athletic scholarship. The same report stated that this recent push to receive athletic scholarships is often derived from the need or desire to have the cost of college lessened. Mr. Thomas said, “specializing and being good at a sport for college entrance is important to some people.” Despite the belief that an athletic scholarship is the only way to finance college, according to Marin Magazine, “for parents with dreams of a college scholarship, academic scholarships are much more plentiful than athletic ones, so it might be a better strategy to have your kids hit the books, not the ball.” Mr. Dunn said that many parents he knows “feel like [not specializing] would put their child on a path that would preclude ever playing on a high school team. It’s silly but there are parents who are hoping and planning for a scholarship from a very young age – 6 or 7.” For her part, Alex Paff made up her mind at age 11 that she was not going to be able to enjoy success in either of her activities if she did not specialize. Even if an individual is not looking for an athletic scholarship, many people feel that they cannot be successful in athletic activities if they do not focus all their energy on one sport.

Contrary to these beliefs, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play reported that “most athletes who achieved elite status as adults (college, Olympics) played multiple sports when they were young.” Along with developing a wide range of skills at a young age that can help athletes in their chosen sport, Mr. Thomas noted, “from everything we’ve heard from college coaches, they like kids who play multiple sports.” Even though, in truth, colleges think it is beneficial to play multiple sports, some parents still believe that pushing their child to focus on one activity is the only way for the child to succeed. “I believe that educating parents about the high risk of injury and showing them accurate statistics regards college scholarships for athletes would definitely help counter specialization in youth sports,” said Mr. Ryan.

David Dunn is a relative of Branson reporter Hannah Dunn.