“Can I pleeeeeease take dance lessons?” my nine-year-old daughter pleaded. Her best friends had been dancing at a local studio for years, and she desperately wanted to join them. Until that point, I had resisted the pressure to sign her up. I had nothing against dance. My daughter had enjoyed recreational dance classes over the years and it was a lovely experience. However, until this point I had held off on committing her to intensive dance training. I wasn’t keen on having my kids specialize in one sport at a young age and it turns out that I was on to something.
Despite the fact that early sports specialization is becoming more and more common, researchers and experts are cautioning parents that this trend isn’t great for young kids and the reasons why might surprise you.
Here are the reasons why I held off on early sport specialization for my own kids along with the latest recommendations for supporting healthy and lasting development in sports and physical activity.
Quick definition: Early sports specialization is intense training in one sport (excluding other sports) at a young age.
The reasons why I held off on early sports specialization
Back to the story about my daughter and her desire to dance. Intensive dance training often requires a child (ages 10 and under) to practice up to eight hours a week and sometimes even more. Of course, this intensive training isn’t unique to dance. In gymnastics, some recommend that young children train upwards of 20 hours a week! Of course, there’s a lot of variation depending on the sport, coach, studio, club, etc. But the truth is, more and more sports are pushing kids towards training younger, for longer amounts of time, and more intensely.
I’ve seen this with my own kids over the years. After joining a ski club, there was soon talk about extra practices, more races, and travelling for competitions. A similar thing happened when my kids joined a recreational youth bouldering team. It seemed that the coaches in almost every sport my kids tried encouraged sports specialization. However, despite the pressure to jump on the bandwagon, I mustered up my mama bear courage and politely said “No, thank you!” to early sports specialization. Here are the reasons why.
Early sports specialization is a BIG time commitment
Specializing in any sport requires a significant commitment of time. Hours upon hours of training are needed each week to excel in a sport, especially if competing on a provincial, national, or international level. This kind of commitment doesn’t only impact a child but the entire family. Knowing that early sports specialization would gobble up a lot of time each week was my first reason for pushing back against it. I knew that the time commitment wouldn’t work with our family’s lifestyle and priorities. We love going on adventures and being active together! Also, hours of intensive training would take away from my children’s opportunity to engage in child-led free play which, according to Sport for Life [PDF], should be the primary focus for physical activity from birth to the age of nine.
Early sports specialization can be very expensive
I’m not against investing money into activities that will have a positive impact on my kids, but early sports specialization can be very expensive, costing thousands of dollars every year. When I considered the cost of early sports specialization and how that money could be spent in ways that could help keep my entire family active (like a family pass to the swimming pool or a season’s pass to the ski hill), I opted for the latter.
Early sports specialization increases the risk of injuries
Intensive training in one sport has been shown to increase the risk of injuries in children. Experts believe this might be because certain fundamental movement skills don’t get properly developed. In other words, early sport specialization can cause physical imbalances increasing the risk of kids getting hurt. There’s also an increase in overuse injuries because children are doing the same types of movements over and over again. In order to have a strong foundation in movement skills, Sport for Life [PDF] recommends that children between the ages of six to nine focus on the FUNdamentals. These are activities that develop the ABCs (agility, balance, coordination, and speed) such as running, jumping, throwing, and swimming—with an emphasis on keeping it FUN! However, if your child is serious in one sport, here are a few principles to follow to prevent injuries.
Early sports specialization can affect mental health
Intensive training in one sport during childhood can lead to emotional exhaustion, burnout, stress, increased anxiety and depression, and eventual dropout from that sport. (Here are some things we can be aware of, and watch out for, in our children.) In addition to issues with mental health, when kids train intensively it takes away from the opportunity to simply be a kid! In other words, spending time playing and being with their friends, which are really important for healthy child development.
Early sports specialization is not needed to become an elite athlete
Often parents push early sport specialization because they believe it’s setting their kids up for success later on, especially if their child decides they want to become an elite athlete. However, it might be surprising to learn that, according to researchers, intense training before puberty isn’t needed, or even recommended, for becoming an elite athlete. In fact, the opposite is true. I’m seeing this play out with my eldest son. At the age of 13, my son discovered the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Up until this point, he enjoyed a variety of sports but did not take part in any intensive sports specialization. And yet, even though Olympic weightlifting was a completely new sport for him, he was competing at a national level by the time he was 15.
Early sports specialization might result in picking the wrong sport
Parents usually pick which sports their children will try, especially when it comes to sports specialization. The reality is that most of the time, the sport a parent picks for their child might not be the best fit. It takes some growing up and experience in a variety of sports before kids discover the best sport for them. I’ve seen this truth play out with my own kids. To learn more about picking good sports for your child read: Is my child playing the wrong sport?
Supporting healthy and lasting development in sports
More and more researchers and sports organizations are pointing to the fact that early sports specialization has its risks and doesn’t guarantee healthy and lasting development in development in sports. That beings said, kids do need to move to be happy and healthy! The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines recommend that kids between the ages five and 17 get at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, which includes a variety of aerobic and muscle- and bone- strengthening activities. So what’s the best way to support our kids?
Use a multisport approach
Sport for Life [PDF] recommends that kids between the ages of five and the start of puberty focus on a multisport approach for sports development. A multisport approach means giving kids the opportunity to try a variety of sports and physical activities throughout their childhood. For my kids (who are now teens) that meant taking swimming lessons during the summer, going hiking as a family, biking with friends, swinging a racket on the tennis court, cross-country skiing at the local Nordic ski centre, and joining some seasonal recreational sports like soccer. A multisport approach is a lot of fun because kids get to try lots of different sports. This approach also helps kids develop a strong foundation of fundamental movement and physical literacy skills.
Encourage plenty of free play
Children need a lot of time for free play, preferably outdoors. According to Sport for Life [PDF], children from birth to age six should engage in free play for 75% of their physical activity, while children from five to nine years should have 50% of their physical activity as free play. As you can see, that’s a lot of time for free play! Free play doesn’t have to be complicated, but I do find that it does need to be intentional. For ideas on how to make time for free play while still enjoying other sports and activities check out: Why kids need free play (and how to protect downtime).
Pick the right programs
It’s definitely possible for your child to enjoy sports like gymnastics, dance, soccer, and hockey without committing to early sports specialization. When signing up your child for a sport or activity, look for a quality sport program, and don’t be afraid to ask the coach questions and check to see if the program incorporates a variety of movements and activities that will help your child develop physical literacy. I also suggest taking a few moments to read this great resource [PDF] from Sport for Life and getting familiar with the first three stages of building a strong foundation in sports and physical activity for kids (page 23).
For more on multisport…
While the evidence clearly points to the benefits of a multisport approach for young kids, there is still plenty of research being done. If you’d like to dig a bit deeper or have more questions about early sports specialization and the multisport approach, I recommend reading Sports for Life’s bulletin on Current Perspectives On Multi-Sport Participation [PDF].
Also, if you’re wondering if my daughter ever started intensive dance training, the answer is: she did! At age 12, she joined a local dance studio and started dancing five hours a week. At first she felt behind but by the end of her first year, the dance teacher was impressed by my daughter’s focus and rapid skill development. I chalk it up to providing my daughter with a strong foundation in movement skills through a multisport approach and waiting until she was physically and mentally ready to take on a more intense level of training.