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Baseballs, story When Youth Sports are Taken to the Extreme

When Youth Sports are Taken to the Extreme

the risks of overspecialization in sports, dance, music, etc., and why variety is key to avoiding burnout

Dylan Rice has been playing baseball since he was 4 years old. That sentence could apply to millions of children over the past three decades, the name swapped out as sports trends come and go. Some things will never change, such as boys taking to baseball the first time they play it, whether they are 4 years old or 14 years old. But what has changed in the past 30 years, besides what names are popular, is the level of intensity at which kids play—and the ferocity with which parents seek out the best training, opportunities and teams for their kids to play on. This is not your father’s baseball.

How They Started

Organized youth sports originated with the start of compulsory education. With the advent of designated free time (hours not spent in school), there was increased focus on recreation opportunities for kids in urban areas. Adults weren’t necessarily comfortable with children—particularly those from poor, immigrant families—playing on their own, so organized sports leagues were born. You could say that grown-ups have been interfering in youth sports since free time was invented.

By the 1930s, Pop Warner and Little League were household names, and after World War II, many youth sports participants came from middle- and upper-class families. In the 1960s, parental anxiety hit a new high over the competitiveness of college entry. As the baby boomers became parents, they took it up a notch, involving their kids in even more competitive teams—viewing athletics as a way around the limits of academic entry into college. As a result, between 1995 and 2005 alone, the Amateur Athletic Union saw the number of national championships for youth sports increase by more than 150%.

Of course, college admissions anxiety is only one part of the increasingly competitive nature of youth sports; another part is keeping up with the Joneses. It’s led to more and more children specializing in a sport earlier and playing nothing but that sport year-round. This phenomenon is called overspecialization, and since 1991, it’s exploded. It may also be why, according to the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 80% of young athletes quit after age 15.

What Does Overspecialization in Sports Look Like?

A University of Michigan study found that from 1981 to 1997, children doubled the time they spent playing an organized sport. That results in more injuries. Dr. Dustin Loveland, surgical director and chief of Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Plano, says that in the last 10 years, he’s seen an increase in the number of children who are having pro-level surgeries for youth-level sports. “My whole life, growing up, I knew one kid who had ACL surgery. Now, every season I have multiple teams with multiple players where I’m doing their ACL surgery.”

Dr. Dustin Loveland of Children’s Health Andrews Institute

Loveland attributes the increase to the number of hours kids now spend in training and practice. Sports that used to be 2-3 months out of the year are now taking place year-round with no breaks. “A few decades ago, it was very odd to see kids who played the same sport year-round. It was a few hours a week of practice and a game on Sunday.” The lack of breaks, which are recommended for two to three months out of the year and one to two days a week, are contributing to overuse injuries. “These are preventable injuries in kids.”

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers introduced a theory about greatness that took root in popular culture: that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a set of complex skills, such as playing a sport or an instrument. The theory was formed after a 1993 study of violinists, which found that top musicians had put in 10,000 hours of practice on average, and that this effort was what separated them from their peers.

Practice Makes Perfect

Brantley Freeman, co-founder of Atlet Sports
Brantley Freeman, co-founder of Atlet Sports

This democratization of greatness is understandably attractive to parents. It takes away all the unknowns—innate talent, body composition, determination, drive and motivation—and pares everything down to playing time, which is something parents have control over. “It used to be that [age] 13 was when you really saw heavy involvement in club and select teams,” says Brantley Freeman, co-founder of Atlet Sports, an athletic performance training group based in Midlothian. “Now it’s 10 years old. There are even travel teams for T-ball, for 3- to 5-year-olds.”

“I’m not ignorant of the reason people do it,” notes Loveland of the new intensity at which parents approach sports that used to be viewed more as hobbies. “We paint a picture of the dad who dreams of his kid making the Major Leagues, but a lot of it is that if you want to be a competitive gymnast, if you go to school and don’t homeschool, it’s impossible for you to have the hours to compete at the highest level.” Because school sports still operate in seasons, club teams are more than happy to provide the answer to how to get those additional practice hours.

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At What Cost?

Back to Dylan Rice, the Rockwall kid who started playing baseball at 4 years old. Neither of his parents played baseball or softball as kids, so they didn’t push him into it. Other sports that he tried just didn’t stick. So that’s how, at 9 years old, Dylan ended up on a select travel team, playing baseball every weekend, year-round.

He’s now 15 and he wants to play college ball, so he has a batting cage in the backyard, and his mom, Candice, plans family events and gatherings around games and three-times-a-week practice. Last year, they canceled their vacation so Dylan could join a more competitive team. Candice says her son has to play year-round, or he’ll fall behind. “There are scouts at the tournaments that the clubs bring in, and you just can’t stay competitive unless you play every season.”

Candice Rice isn’t alone in feeling this way. In Frisco, mom of two Melanie Shepard feels her pain. Doubled. Her boys Jack and Jacoby, who are 14 and 11, play on teams for Frisco Ice Hockey Association and the Dallas Stars Metro Hockey League. Jacoby has played hockey since he was 4 after dabbling briefly in soccer. Today, he plays 8–10 hours per week year-round as well as two to three tournaments per year. “They get the summers off,” Shepard adds, “but there’s summer hockey, and it’s free ice time, so they go.” When asked how many games they play a year, she responds, “How many weekends are there?”

The Real Risk of Injuries

Ninth grader Savannah Woosley started playing volleyball in second grade and in the past has competed in as many as 15 tournaments a year with her club team, Fort Worth Fire. She would like to play for a Division I school in college, but her father, David, has tried to get across the importance of staying focused on school. “She’s seen players blow out their knees or mess up their hitting hand, and they’re done. No one can take your education away from you, but blow out your knee and you’re done.” You can almost hear him knocking on wood through the phone.

Aside from acute injuries, such as the ones caused by player collisions, there’s also a risk of overuse injuries, especially in children who are still growing. “The ones that stand out are elbow injuries in baseball players and gymnasts. Shoulder injuries in throwers,” says Loveland. “There are two concepts for overuse, and [repetition] is one. The other is if a kid with open growth plates is throwing or pitching year-round, it’s more at risk for being inflamed and at risk for being injured.”

How Overtraining Manifests

Overtraining is also a risk, says Freeman. Overtraining symptoms range from physical ailments to mental blocks, such as what Simone Biles faced at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. “The main overtraining symptoms we look out for are lack of focus, lethargy and disinterest,” Freeman shares.

These athletes may also catch colds, feel irritable, lose their appetites, experience training plateaus or sustain persistent injuries. In kids who are participating in school sports and club teams, this sometimes happens because the different coaches aren’t communicating, says Freeman, and the child is being overworked in one area or skill.

Overtraining risks aside, Freeman says it’s not especially helpful from a skills perspective to just focus on playing time in younger kids. “For younger athletes, we also limit sports-specific training in favor of general skills training, like speed, agility and developing the overall skills you need to succeed in any sport.”

Beyond Skill-Specific Mastery

This approach is borne out by research. A study of Division I (DI) athletes found that early diversification, or playing a variety of sports, provided athletes with “valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments, and promotes motivation.” In fact, among high-level athletes, the greater the number of activities the athletes experienced up to age 12, the less sports-specific practice they needed to excel in their sport of choice. Freeman points out that there are many general skills athletes need to succeed, and those skills cross the boundaries between most sports.

In addition, the benefits of skill-specific mastery, such as throwing or shooting, may be short-lived, but it’s often emphasized when winning is prioritized over athlete development. “We find [on club teams] there’s less time spent on trying to get better at the sport,” says Freeman. “It’s just playing a ton of games.”

This single-focus mindset can also lead to burnout in sports, something parents see firsthand. Isabella Araujo, a tenth grader, recently quit her club volleyball team to focus on the arts in her junior year. “She decided to focus on the fine arts because it would have an impact on her future,” says her mom, Ilka Araujo, a professor of piano at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. “It can be negative because many times they are burned out by middle school because of all the tournaments and games. It’s a bit more of a business.”

Busting the 10,000 Hours Myth

In 2019, Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, set out to test the 10,000-hour rule from the 1993 violinist study to see if she could duplicate the results. What she found was that practice told only part of the story. The original study didn’t account for factors such as quality of instruction, physical compatibility with the activity, or student motivation to do things that would further their skills.

In addition, there are physiological advantages some individuals have in addition to finding their sport early or being unusually motivated to compete. There are endurance athletes, like decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, whose muscles just produce less lactic acid and therefore cause him to feel less pain and fatigue than another swimmer who has trained just as hard as he has. No amount of practice can make up for luck like that. “Practice can make you a better player than you were yesterday,” Macnamara concluded. “But it won’t necessarily make you better than someone else.”

Defining Success for Yourself

Savannah isn’t missing out on anything else to play sports. “If I didn’t play volleyball, I’d be playing basketball. My goal is to play DI volleyball, and maybe go to the Olympics. I always know I’m going to get better every practice, so that motivates me to go.” Dylan, Jack and Jacoby all mentioned DI sports as a goal, despite the increasing competition for scholarship spots and even for walk-on opportunities across college sports. COVID-19 caused schools across the country to drop less popular programs, and even popular ones if they didn’t bring in sufficient revenue. There are fewer opportunities for kids to realize their college sports dreams than ever, and that’s the closest to going pro that most students will ever experience in their sport.

Isabella, who gave up volleyball to focus on arts, just saw more of a future there than in sports, says her mother. Although the risks caused by overspecialization are high in sports, in music, children are encouraged to start some instruments, such as piano, as early as age 5 because of the benefits of fine-motor skill development. There’s not the drop off or burnout you see in youth sports, says Araujo. “With volleyball, it was more about just getting a college scholarship, not a whole mind-body development, which the arts were. They aren’t being taught the other side of the sport, like collaborating as a team. Music is for the love of music, and at the same time it’s fun for them. There is competition, but it’s not all about competing.”

An American Legend

The skills learned in music are highly transferable, which may prevent burnout, says Jill Sprenger, owner of Fort Worth Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts. While athletics don’t translate to academic success, commitment to music is often an indicator of it. “I have had so many private piano students who pursued piano study at an early, intense level and went on to be pre-med students at Johns Hopkins, Oberlin, UT and other major universities,” Sprenger remarks. “I have personally found the correlation between private, intense sustained music study and success in medical school to be consistently clear.”

In the end, it may come down to how we define success in sports, or in any other pursuit. American piano legend and Fort Worth icon Van Cliburn, for whom the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is named, was often viewed as not living up to his musical potential after his landmark win at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia during the height of the Cold War.

He began playing at age 3 and retired at just 44, his obituary in The New York Times calling him a musician of “unfulfilled promise and potential.” But an interview just after his overwhelming fame hit tells a different story. “A man’s loneliest hours begin when public recognition begins,” Cliburn told the reporter. “Prestige or simple recognition is often mistaken for success. Nothing could be further from the truth. For me, the greatest possible success would be to be utterly alone without feeling the need to talk to anyone. You can achieve this only when you achieve control over a fixed idea.”

Forge Your Own Future

In the end, parents do as much to help their children form what that idea looks like as they do to help them succeed. “As a parent and a professor, from what I see, the most important thing is that you don’t live your dreams through your children, and secondly don’t set all their goals for them,” says Araujo. “Every human being is made for something, but it’s up to that human being to decide what that is.”

What to Look Out For

Do you see any of these signs in your child? Experts identify them as symptoms of overtraining:

  • Chronic muscle or joint pain
  • Personality changes
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Decreased performance
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of enthusiasm about practice or competition
  • Difficulty with successfully completing usual routines

To-Do List

These best practices help avoid burnout in young athletes and performers:

  • Try new things. Even if you’re still doing sports, music, or art, you can explore a new genre, instrument or skill.
  • Take a break of at least 1–2 days a week and 2–3 months per year.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Allow time for unstructured play.
Burnt out ballerina and cover kid from our Aug/Sept 2021 issue: Koralyn, 5, of Fort Worth

What’s the Pointe?

There’s not much cuter than a little kid tapping or in a tutu. And you don’t have to be too concerned about starting them early—classes for the youngest dancers are less about technique and more about building full spatial awareness (something that serves kids well in their overall development).

As dancers get older and begin to develop a strong interest in one dance form or another, teachers typically encourage them to continue other classes. Sydney Blalock Ritchie—a former DFWChild editor who teaches at Gotta Dance, home of Plano Metropolitan Ballet—says ballet is the foundation for most dance forms (except tap, hip-hop and other cultural dances), so it’s a great choice.

Children committed to the highly competitive world of ballet shouldn’t ignore different dance forms either. “I always encourage my ballet students to take other classes,” says Ritchie. “It gets them out of their head, and if I give them choreography that’s even slightly outside the ballet norm, they can handle it better. They know different ways to move.”

Keep in mind, even if your young ballet dancer has dreams of going professional, there may be some physiological limits. Certain people have limited ankle mobility and hip turnout that make elite ballet more challenging, and overuse injuries are not uncommon in serious dancers. Being well-rounded, even within the discipline of dance, can ensure your child can continue the joy of movement. —Alexis Patterson

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Top image: iStock; bottom image: Cindy James Photography