Specialization in sports at an early age is becoming more common, the result of increased competition for playing time and athletic scholarships. Parents and coaches often encourage this practice thinking it will lead to future athletic success; however, experts say this is not true and may actually be detrimental to performance at a later age.

"Participating in a variety of sports will help a child develop other athletic skills that they would not develop if they specialized in one sport too early," says Jennifer VanSickle, assistant professor of sport management at the University of Indianapolis. "Athletic skills such as speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and reacting are all stressed differently in different sports. These athletic skills will later transfer to the child's primary activity, so everything a child does to become a better all-around athlete will make the child a better soccer player, for instance."

Parents and coaches contribute to the problem when they pressure children to specialize and encourage year-round training, VanSickle says. A number of problems can occur with early sports specialization, including physical and psychological burnout and the loss of the diverse social contacts that come with participation in different sports, she says. Early specialization also can lead to a loss of transferable athletic skills, a greater risk of overuse and repetitive stress injuries, higher levels of pre-competitive anxiety that can lead to emotional trauma and difficulty coping with athletic failure later in life due to a great deal of success at an early age.

While studies have shown that elite performers often require more than 10 years of practice to acquire the skills needed to compete at top levels, studies also have shown that early sport specialization is not necessarily the answer. "Two studies of Soviet children in the 1990s reported that early sport specialization did not lead to the performance advantages that were expected," VanSickle notes. "Rather, children who specialized at a later age performed better than those who specialized earlier."

So when should children begin to focus on only one sport? VanSickle advocates waiting until adolescence. She notes that researchers have termed the period from ages six to 13 as "sampling years," a time when children should participate in a variety of sports just for fun.

"Waiting to specialize until age 12 or 13, when the child is more physically and emotionally mature, helps ensure that he or she is participating in that sport because he or she wants to, rather than trying to fulfill a parent or coach's dream," VanSickle explains. She notes that during this time period, parents should maintain a supportive role and be careful not to pressure their child to specialize in only one sport.

If a child is adamant about pursuing one sport, VanSickle offers these tips for reducing the chances of injury or burnout:

-- Focus on improving overall performance and skills - not on winning.
-- Make sure children use proper training techniques.
-- Avoid overtraining.
-- Watch for overuse injuries. This can be accomplished through regular doctor appointments.
-- Never tell children to "play/work through the pain."
-- Let the child choose the sports and level of participation.
-- Make sure the child has an off season to avoid burnout.

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