This week I wanted to talk about sport specialization, and how wise it is in youth sports. We are in an age where kids are playing one sport all year round and only that sport. A big reason for this is based on fear that if they don’t they will not be kept on a team and will ultimately not get to a high level within their sport. The fascinating thing is that the research shows the complete opposite. That athletes who don’t specialize and play multiple sports in their youth are the ones who go the furthest with their sport. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, some of those reasons are around reduced risk of overuse injury by playing multiple sports, reducing the rate of burnout, increased internal motivation, better creativity, and free play equal more play and time to develop skills. There is also this theory out there about how one has to spent 10,000 hours doing something to become great at it. This theory does not take in many different factors such as genetics, and research shows that most sports require far less than 10,000 hours for an athlete to be great at it. In fact 10,000 hours of activity may be required but most of that time is spent in other sports other than the one an athlete will ultimately specialize in.

Age 12: 80% of the time an athlete should spend on other sports than the one they may specialize in

Age 13-15: 50/50 split between the specialized sport and other sports

Age 16+: 20% of the athlete should still spend on other sports and activities

When I was growing up, I don’t know if the percentage of time I spent on hockey versus others sports and just being a kid broke down exactly as described above, but I do know I spent a lot of time on other sports, and during the summer spent 2 months with no structured activity. I loved hockey, but I also loved tennis, soccer, baseball, lacrosse and any other sport I could play. I also loved my time away from hockey and structured activities. It allowed me to come back each fall refreshed and ready for the next year. I know the time away and playing other sports made me a better hockey player. I was also fortunate that my team didn’t require me to play all year round, I don’t know what would have happened if it did, but I also know I took games off and practices when I needed to for my health or family things. It is important to remember that athletes are humans and balance is needed. Forgetting that will only continually make the issues that are being seen with burnout in youth sports even worse.

For more on the research and the need to spread the word on the detrimental effects of specialization check out this article.