Pandemic Offers Necessary Pausing Point for Youth Sports Specialization

Photo Credit: Brown University

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the commoditization of youth sports — such as AAU basketball, Little League baseball, and Pop Warner football —had become remarkably mainstream, putting the national spotlight on adolescents to perform. The 2019 Little League World Series games averaged over 1 million viewers; the Pop Warner Super Bowl has increasingly become a national showcase for pre-teens over the past two decades; social basketball accounts like “Ball Is Life” showcasing youth basketball talents gain millions of daily unique impressions on young basketball players.

As talented pre-teen children teams have had an opportunity to get exposed to the national spotlight, several adult coaches and organizations have capitalized on the commercial opportunities by exploiting the innocent kids to make a quick buck — hindering the developments and interests of the children to establish a desire for the short-term gains without consideration of the long-term well-being of the children.

This has created several unintended consequences: The late Kobe Bryant blamed “horrible, terrible AAU basketball” for the lack of skill development in many current basketball players. Pitching overwork has contributed a rapid rise in youth elbow injuries. Concussion rates have doubled for youth football players over the past decade.

These disturbing trends present alarming risks for exposing young adolescents — who do not earn a penny from childhood through collegiate participation in their respective sports — to the national spotlight before hitting puberty.

On a physical level, repeated joint and muscle movements in a singular context have led to wear-and-tear and severe overuse injuries, with abnormal physical developments for children during their critical growth phases.

Psychologically, the stresses and rigors of serious competition — particularly with the national exposure and the accompanying online presence associated with it — can have lasting negative mental health effects.

Most young athletes do not participate in collegiate athletics, let alone advance to the pro ranks. Out of the fraction of a percent of those who have made the pro ranks, the high majority of them participated in multiple high school sports.

For any activity, the purpose of competition should serve as a barometer for people to measure themselves against others facing similar circumstances at a particular moment in time, and different games require different strategies to win and succeed. Every sport has a unique differentiator to it that requires different tactics to win the match. This alone provides so many unique and valuable insights.

Physical sports with the similar fundamental purpose of putting a ball into the opposing team’s net/basket can be executed in several different ways:

  • Soccer is played by 11 players on each team on a 136 x 93-yard field, as players run on average 7 miles throughout the course of a 90-minute game, placing a heavy emphasis on cardiovascular endurance and needing to develop foot ball control skills to perform at the highest level.
  • Basketball is played by 5 players on each team on an indoor 94 x 50 foot hardwood basketball court, placing an emphasis on lateral agility, quick sprints, and effective body movements within condensed spaces
  • Stick-based sports like lacrosse and ice hockey are microcosms of each other — one played on a large football-sized field (lacrosse) and the other played inside an enclosed arena within small dimensions — but both require completely different body movements to effectively play the sport.

Playing each of these games requires different methodologies, rules, and strategies to perform at an optimal level. Putting children in different game situations (and different forms of movement) allows them to strengthen the mind by adapting to various situations, learning new skills, and working with different groups of people.

The combination of these different experiences allows for creative and savvy thought processes that positions these children to succeed in the future, no matter what they choose to do in their lives. In Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, serial entrepreneur Richard Branson shares that his secrets to successful innovations come at the intersection of different concepts/activities/fields.

Varied gameplay exposure provides several different unique experiences for youngsters as they physically and mentally develop and mature. They can always circle back on these experiences for inspiration as they move through life.

While skill development is necessary to achieve excellence, multiple studies have stated that no evidence of early sport specialization leads to elite skill development. Thus, for kids with the desire proceed to an advanced level of a physical activity and/or develop a lifelong interest in a particular sport, is it really necessary for them to specialize in any sport at such an early age?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store