As parents, we all want our children to succeed. We seek for them to grow into young adults with the necessary social, emotional and problem-solving skills to succeed in life. Most of all, we want them to become healthy, confident contributors to society and quality people.
Research by experts in the field shows that the best path toward that goal, from an athletic point of view, is to let them play a multitude of sports and participate in a variety of activities, both structured and unstructured.
The same research reveals that one of the worst things we can do to our kids is to funnel them into one activity at too young of an age. Youth sport specialization won’t be giving your child a leg up into becoming the next Connor McDavid or Penny Oleksiak. In fact, it may be hampering their development into productive members of society and curtailing their overall safety, as well as their happiness with life.
The Director of Knowledge Translation for Parachute Canada, Stephanie Cowle is an expert in the area of injury and trauma prevention. She led the publication of Canada’s first Guideline on Concussion in Sport.
When it comes to youth sport, Cowle’s assessment is that variety is the best approach to take.
“From the perspective of what the research tells us about children’s development and their wellness and their well-being, there seems to be a lot of benefits to a multi-sport lifestyle and in contrast, some potential harms to what we would call sport specialization,” Cowle said.
Children are still figuring out who they are. Part of that process is discovering what things they enjoy, which activities that are passionate about pursuing. Allowing them to epxerience all that life has to offer is a certain way to ultimately expose them to what could become their life’s pursuit.
“Giving kids the time to explore different type of sports and activities, gives them time to discover what they enjoy, what they’re passionate about, what they feel they’re good at,” Cowle said. “And that can take some time. So giving them the opportunity to explore and develop is really important.”
The benefits of sport sampling, as it’s often called run the spectrum of life skills. The child who partakes in a multitiude of activities and different creative pathways benefits them not only in terms of physical and neuromuscular development but also in terms of social and emotional development, which is important for them as athletes but also just as human beings.
“When children participate in different sports, they have opportunities to develop all sorts of different skills” Cowle said. “What they might want to do as a career for their life. What type of friends they might want to have. What type of friend they may want to be.
“It’s important we remember that children are children and that they have time develop as their own people. They have a right to do that and a right to play. As adults in their lives, whether we’re parents, caregivers, coaches, educators, we’re there to support that in a safe and healthy way and provide those opportunities along the way for them.”
Kids who find their own path on the playing field are also more likely to continue pursuing that path.
“When children are able to find a sport that they enjoy, that allows them to build intrinsic motivation,” Cowle said. “That motivation to go out, to show up, to be a leader, to do the best that they can comes from within, rather than it being forced on them from outside pressure.”
Studies also reveal that childen who sport sample are less prone to overuse injury, anxiety and depression.
“The current evidence suggests that delaying sports specialization for the vast majoirity of sports until after puberty is beneficial for minimizing all sorts of risks for athletes,” Cowle said. “Their physical and mental health, burnout, stress. It’s also been associated with a higher likelihood of athletic success.
“There really seem to be benefits to allowing kids to try multiple sports, or sports sample, as it’s sometimes called. On the flipside, there really is no evidence to suggest that there are benefits to children through sport specialization.”