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Single Sport Specialization: Why it’s BAD for kids.

Hockey was always my favourite sport growing up (and still is), but I was also involved in other sports. Baseball, soccer and water skiing kept me busy during the off season and I believe they all helped me become a better hockey player.

Based on my experience and what I’ve learned from others, some of the primary reasons why kids shouldn’t focus on single sport specialization include:

Missed opportunities for skill development
Repetitive use injuries
High burnout potential

Skill Development

Yes, kids can improve their hockey skills by practicing and playing year round. However, they miss significant development opportunities when they aren’t exposed to different sports. For example, baseball enhances hand-eye coordination and sports like football and lacrosse teach children how to avoid, roll off and execute hits. These skills are also learned while playing hockey, but some of them are more commonly used in other games.

Exercising specific skills in new environments will challenge kids’ abilities and help them improve at a faster pace. Children will become more well rounded athletes because the skills they enhance while playing other sports are directly transferrable to hockey, which is usually beneficial in the long term compared to individuals who focus on a single sport.

Repetitive Use Injuries

There’s always a risk of repetitive use injury when constantly performing one sport. Hockey is a tough game and kids can easily sustain injuries throughout the year. Unfortunately, injuries can become chronic if players don’t allow their bodies to recover.

If a goalie pulls his groin, but continues to play after a short recovery time, he’s setting himself up for a repetitive use injury. Participating in a less physically demanding sport for a while or taking an adequate amount of time off will reduce the likelihood of an ongoing injury.

Sometimes kids don’t understand the dangers of continuous use after injuries occur. It’s important for parents and coaches to recognize the severity of each injury to prevent long-term damage. Hockey season can be a long ride, so it’s crucial for children to take time to recover, but still develop their skills by participating in different sports.

Burnout

One of the most notable consequences of single sport specialization is burnout. Just like adults, kids need down time. Playing hockey 12 months per year leads to physical and mental exhaustion, which can set players back in the long run. Also, having a break from hockey makes kids more excited for the upcoming season, causing a higher level of motivation to excel.

Just because kids aren’t playing hockey in the off season, it doesn’t mean they should be running from sport to sport, as that will also cause burnout. Children should have the opportunity to try a few different sports to stay active, but still have time to do “kid stuff.” This type of break from hockey will provide them with the recovery period needed to get back into the game refreshed and ambitious when the winter season rolls around.

When to Specialize in a Single Sport

Determining when to focus on a single sport heavily depends on the type of sport, as well as each individual’s goals, dedication and maturity level. Figure skaters, for instance, tend to specialize at a young age due to the nature of the sport. However, as a general rule, I wouldn’t encourage kids to specialize until they reach the 14 to 16 age range.

If a player excels at one sport, they usually start to realize that they can take their game to the next level by age 14, 15 or 16. This is also an age where children can more confidently make longer-term decisions and set goals that they’re likely to follow through on, especially if they have support from their parents and/or coaches. Kids need time to try different sports and develop their skills to become well rounded athletes, so they can decide what they’d like to focus on when they get older.

One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is this: Do not to force children to focus on one sport. A lot of parents want their kids to make it to the big leagues like the NHL, but that’s not a very realistic goal. Youth sports shouldn’t be about what the parents want, it should be about what the kids want. Children can’t play everything due to time and financial restrictions, but they should be encouraged and enabled to try different sports if they’re interested.

At the end of the day, children will be better athletes overall if they’re involved in multiple sports. They’ll have an opportunity to develop skills in different environments, prevent or minimize repetitive use injuries, and avoid physical and mental burnout.

What do you think about single sport specialization? Do you have any experiences you’d like to share?