What Worries Parents Most About Youth Early Sports Specialization: The Message I Shared with Sports Medicine Physicians and Researchers
Two years ago I was honored to speak at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) in Houston, Texas during a day-long summit on Youth Early Sports Specialization (ESS), which is when a child selects a primary sport, quits other sports to focus on that sport, and plays that sport exclusively for more than 8 months out of the year.
Drawing on three decades of educating youth sports stakeholders on injury prevention and talking to thousands of parents — from mothers of Professional and Olympic athletes to fathers of 8-year-olds in their first year playing tackle football — I shared with the country’s leading sports medicine physicians and researchers during my 15-minute, TED-style talk the concerns parents have been expressing to me about ESS and offered some thoughts on what I thought might be done to reverse what many view as a dangerous trend.
Parents are Worried and Trapped
What I am hearing from parents about early sports specialization is that they are feeling worried and trapped.
What worries parents most about specializing in a single sport, especially at an early age, are:
Overuse injuries: Parents are worried, not just about orthopedic injuries but about the effect of repetitive head impacts, which the media has them believing will inevitably result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and put them at increased risk of committing suicide.
Emotional injuries: Parents are worried that the trend toward elite and travel teams is preventing more and more of their kids from playing on teams with their friends. For the kids who aren’t deemed good enough to make travel teams comes the pain of being rejected and excluded. With travel and elite teams also comes the risk of emotionally abusive coaches, and, as we saw with the Larry Nassar scandal, increased risk of sexual abuse.
And, a worrying trend that I am hearing a lot about: is banning parents from practices (which, to me, is a red flag for possible abuse).
Cost: Specializing in a sport is expensive: everything from private coaches to elite travel teams, tournaments, childcare, to $750 football helmets and $250 impact sensors, to the cost of videotaping games and practices. The larger societal problem of increased income and wealth inequality is being reflected in the world of youth sports: wealthy parents can afford the cost of sports specialization; poor and middle class parents — not so much.
Time: ESS almost inevitably creates a logistical nightmare for families, especially for single parent households.
Parents are also feeling trapped. The pressure on parents and their kids from the youth sports industrial complex to pick a sport, and pick it early, is intense and getting more intense by the day.
It is happening in every sport: Not just in sports such as hockey, gymnastics, swimming, tennis and figure skating (which have traditionally seen early specialization) but in football, soccer, baseball, and basketball. A reflection of this trend: there were break-out sessions at the YESS summit on early specialization in thirteen different sports.
What is most worrisome for me as a youth sports educator is that none of this is really new: I have been writing about why early sports specialization is a bad idea for fifteen years!
Unfortunately — and it truly pains me to say it — it appears that no amount of educating sports stakeholders on the risks of early specialization by NGOs or non-profits such as MomsTEAM is going to bring youth sports back into balance, make it child- centered and fun again, give kids time to engage in the unstructured free play research shows is needed for healthy child development or reverse the trend towards the professionalization of youth sports.
The solution: listen to parents!
In my view, what is needed most is to give parents, especially mothers, a voice! They will tell you:
- My kid wants to play with ALL of their friends. Not just the ones who can afford to play.
- They do not want sports to be exclusionary.
· We want to be included. Banning parents from games and practices is not the answer and raises lots of red flags. We are not going back to rotary phones and to a time when parents never attended practices. Parents need to be able to monitor what goes on behind closed doors.
Instead of banning parents from practices and games, coaches and leagues at the local level need to put in place a structure to build strong relationships and keep the lines of communication open between parents, coaches, and athletes. If not, there will be disruptive parents. Parents need to be invited to participate early and often — especially in this age of data tracking: videos, impact sensors, videos available to the world 24/7.
Again, none of this is news to me. In fact, I wrote a whole book about the critical role of mothers in youth sports.
My message then and my message now is this:
· Unless and until women are given equal seats (and voices) at the youth sports table, as coaches, administrators, and board members, at the local, state, national, and international level (like was done at the ASSM’s annual meeting), the warrior culture of youth sports, the professionalization of youth sports, and the trend towards early sport specialization, will just get worse.
· Women need to resist the temptation to become ultra-competitive and adopt the win-at-all-costs of men. Instead, they need to tap into their natural abilities to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate. Women have been the guardians of children at play since the beginning of time. Give them a chance to be guardians again.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to listen to what women and sports mothers have to say. And, for those who say women don’t want to coach — like my friend sociologist Michel Messner wrote about — I get it — but many men don’t like to do the laundry, vacuuming, cooking or shopping. We all need to get out of our comfort zones to make sure future generations have a team to play on. We need real societal change.
The most important word that parents want us all to hear is COMMUNICATE.
The most important word that parents want us all to hear is COMMUNICATE. A child’s successful journey to adulthood, one in which they do not burn out, wear out and drop out will be determined on how well the coach, league and other stakeholders communicate with young athletes and their parents.
Have a question for Brooke? email her at: delench@MomsTeam.com
Brooke de Lench is the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), the Producer of the documentary, “The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS) and the founding Executive Director of MomsTeam Institute and the Smart Teams Play Safe Project
Follow Brooke on Twitter @BrookedeLench, @MomsTeam, or @SmartTeams
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