Parents are frequently playing the odds. Many direct their children into a specific sport hoping for a college scholarship or, fingers crossed, a shot at a pro career.
Those who guide their kids into fencing are playing the best odds: Nearly 33 percent of high school fencers will compete in collegiate varsity programs, according to Fencing University.org. For parents who continually push football, the odds are significantly lower: Less than 7 percent of those athletes will play collegiate ball, the National Collegiate Athletic Association reports.
As detailed by the NCAA, 480,000 of the approximately 8 million students currently participating in high school athletics will play college athletics. And just 1 percent of those students will receive a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school, according to the National Collegiate Scouting Association. While 6 percent of all high school athletes will have the opportunity to play in college, the other 94 percent must fall back on something else.
There is no question sports promote many good habits. “Kids who participate in organized sports do better in school, have better interpersonal skills, are more team-oriented, and are generally healthier,” according to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. These athletes are also less likely to experiment with drugs, as detailed by Education Week.
However, many parents place far too much pressure on their children, directing them to be one-sport specialists. “The most common fear I hear among parents is that if they don’t specialize early, their children will fall behind and never catch up,” said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, an organization focused on youth sports.
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Gone are the days of the well-rounded athlete. As a result, kids are experiencing repetitive strain injuries at higher rates than doctors have ever seen. RSIs occur when a motion is repeated so often that the body does not have enough time to heal. For younger athletes, RSIs arise most often at the growth plates — areas of developing cartilage where bone growth occurs, as noted by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. RSIs used to be considered a middle-age phenomenon — but adolescents are now undergoing surgery that was once the exclusive domain of the over-40 crowd.
It is critical that parents understand the limits of their children's bodies. According to pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Szalay, parents need to understand that the "pediatric muscular skeletal system can't train in the same way an adult would train … Kids' growing bones simply can't endure the stress that adult bones can." However, many parents seem to disregard such warnings: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported that about 50 percent of all injuries are related to overuse.
The world's leading sports organizations have spoken out against the specialization trend in youth sports. The American Academy of Pediatrics has publicly reminded parents that "unstructured free play should be encouraged to enhance enjoyment of sports, as well as promote spontaneity and creativity." Experts know that a multi-sport approach "can lead to better performance, less burnout, less social isolation, and, most importantly, more lifelong enjoyment in sports," as noted in the SportsBusiness Journal.
Playing many sports allows an athlete to develop a variety of transferable motor skills and enhance his or her overall athleticism as compared to playing just a single sport.
For parents who refuse to heed the experts' advice, research reveals that early specialization does not help kids become elite athletes. "Early specialization may enhance a skill, but it does not enhance athleticism like practicing multiple sports can," said sports psychologist Richard Ginsburg.
The reality is that early specialization leads to a higher probability of injury. Researchers at Loyola University discovered that single-sport athletes are almost twice as likely to injure themselves as their multi-sport peers.
Beyond the physical breakdown, the psychological toll of specialization can be severe. Early specialization can interfere with a child's identity development, causing the child to develop a one-dimensional self-concept, in which he sees himself only as an athlete. Such children frequently lose their academic focus as they concentrate solely on athletics. The increased demands from their coaches may cause the child greater stress, and he may believe his parents' love is tied to his winning. This child is more likely to burn out with no other sport to fall back on. Researchers at Ohio State University also found that children who specialize in one sport tend to be more physically inactive as adults than their multi-sport peers.
The odds are not in a child's favor for playing professionally one day. As detailed by the NCAA, the odds of a child playing professional baseball is .6 percent, professional football .8 percent, and professional basketball .3 percent.
Parents need to ensure their children's physical and emotional welfare and stop robbing kids of their childhood — it's why creating an "athletic Frankenstein" can be disastrous on every level.
Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years on every aspect of the college admissions process.