Are Sports Failing Our Children?

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Photo courtesy of Adrian H. Wood

The days of playing kickball or neighborhood basketball have been replaced with competitive sports. This refers to today’s trend in which a child plays one sport and plays it intensely. Children as young as 7 are specializing in one sport, year-round, at a highly competitive level and often on multiple teams. Sports specialization schools that combine sports training with academics are also operating across the United States.

Parents like me are left wondering if this is a good thing. Let’s review research from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Aug. 29, 2016 report, “Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes.”

1. Sports are most beneficial because they: foster an enjoyment of physical activity and naturalize socialization with peers; offer a positive experience of team effort; and heighten self-confidence. Children who play sports report a high level of satisfaction and enjoyment.

2. Athletes who play a variety of sports are less likely to be injured and more likely to play sports for a longer span of time than peers who specialize in one sport prior to middle school.

3. Though parents wistfully dream of athletic scholarships, less than 1 percent of student athletes receive a collegiate scholarship based on their sports ability.

4. The U.S. Olympic Committee suggests that children follow this schedule for best results: Discover, learn and play (ages 0–12); develop and challenge (ages 10–16); and train and compete (ages 13–19).

5. Children who play a wide range of athletics and wait to specialize until after puberty (around age 15 or 16) are the most likely to obtain athletic success or reach elite status.

6. An intensive training schedule has been shown to decrease a child’s desire to participate in athletics. Again, those children who specialize before puberty report higher rates of burnout, anxiety, depression and attrition.

7. If your child does specialize, periods of recovery time are essential. Three months off per year, one month at a time, from said sport provides physical and psychological respite. In addition, one to two days of rest per week is needed for physical recovery throughout the season.

8. To be successful on the playing field, young athletes need to develop refined gross motor skills, age appropriate social skills and psychological skills. To date, there is no evidence that children who specialize early are more successful than those who specialize after puberty.

9. It is often parents who push children to specialize early in sports, followed by coaches, who rank second in impressing upon families that specializing in one sport is crucial for long-term success.

10. Children who play a variety of sports are gifted the opportunity for real success, as they can grow physically, cognitively and socially in a more natural and positive environment that gives rise to the development of intrinsic motivation.

In the last 20 years, sports have become highly organized and 50 percent more children are participating in specialized and exclusive programs. As that statistic rises, the number of children who are enjoying those sports in high school is falling. More than 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports by their 13th birthday.

Well, that answers my question.

Adrian H. Wood, Ph.D., is a North Carolina writer who lives in Edenton with her husband and four children, the youngest of whom who has extra-special needs. Read more of her writing at


Categories: Enrichment, Exercise, Health and Development, Parenting, Teens