You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that getting their kid to participate in sport is a bad thing.
I mean, how could they?
Sport provides your kids with an opportunity to get out and exercise. It allows them to build balance and coordination, enhance their social skills, improve their fitness, and develop good lifestyle habits that will keep them in good health for the rest of their lives.
But what if it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows?
What if sport – or rather, becoming very good at a sport – at a young age can actually have detrimental effects?
Does sports success early in life have a negative effect later in life?
There is some rather interesting research demonstrating that children who specialize in a single sport at an early age can develop some damaging side effects.
Coined as ‘early sports specialization’, this phenomenon describes the act of training for a single sport for at least 8 months of the year, at the exclusion of other sports.
In short, it is exactly as it sounds – a child specializing in a single sport at a young age.
You might be wondering why in the world this could possibly be a negative thing? If your child is good at a given sport, why not let them pursue it wholeheartedly. Why not help them strive to become the best that they possibly can?
Why not push them to become elite?
Related Article: Do Children Perform Better In Sports Based On Coach’s Gender?
Childhood Sports Success And Mental health
And the reason is quite simple – children who specialize in a sport at a young age, and then see success in that sport, tend to experience much higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who do not (Wojtys, 2013).
To make matters worse, this seriously increases their risk of experiencing poor mental health as an adult – which is obviously not a good thing.
Now, the reason for this is undeniably multifactorial.
However, there is one train of thought that may explain this phenomenon in a bit more detail. See, those children who specialize in a sport too early start to hold all of their self-worth in their ability to perform that sport.
Subsequently, their mental health is entirely dictated by their sports success.
And unfortunately, it is also dictated by their failure.
With this mind, if they perform poorly, or they fail to make it to the highest level, then their self-worth plummets – and when we consider that less than 99% of good youth athletes make it to the highest level, well declines in mental health become increasingly likely.
Individual sports vs. team sports
It is important to note that although early sports specialization across the board has been shown to increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety, this risk increases in those children who participate in individual sports (Nixdorf, 2016).
This is likely because any failures experienced in an individual sport undeniably come down to the child’s inability to compete at that given moment in time.
There is no one else to share these failures with – which can take a rather large toll on the mind.
Does sports success early in life improve your chances of sports success later in life?
It may seem logical that children who become very good youth athletes are more likely to become elite adult athletes in that same sport – however, research would suggest otherwise (Myer, 2015).
See, those children who participate in a variety of different sports throughout their childhood get the opportunity to develop several different physical qualities simultaneously. As a result, they become more robust athletes, in which they develop greater coordination and neuromuscular control, and a broader base of physical capacity.
In short, they can handle anything that is thrown at them in open competition.
Alternatively, although those children who specialize early will become excellent at sport-specific skills, their physical capacity will remain very narrow. As a result, they develop into less robust athletes – and this actually reduces their likelihood of becoming an elite adult athlete significantly.
Which clearly demonstrates that while sport in a general sense is a good thing, specializing too early is not.
What are the benefits of playing sport early in life?
Now, to be clear – then the impact of sports specialization at an early age does not mean that your child should not play sport at all. It just means that they should try and diversify, and actively participate in more than one sport on a yearly basis (Merkel, 2013; Amado-Alonso, 2019).
If they play a sport in this manner, then it can have a myriad of benefits which include:
- Improved aerobic fitness
- Increased energy expenditure, and better weight management
- Reduced risk of becoming overweight and obese
- Reduced risk of cardiometabolic disease and illnesses
- Better development of motor skills
- Higher levels of self-esteem
- More emotional intelligence
- The development of healthy activity patterns into later life
What are the cons of playing sport early in life?
Conversely, there are also some negatives that need to be considered.
While we have already touched on the fact that that having a lot of sports success early in life may set you up for declines in mental health both as a child and as an adult, there are some other negatives that need addressing (Jayanthi, 2013):
- An increased risk of overuse injuries
- Increases in stress and anxiety
- The development of antisocial behaviors
- Development of poor coping skills
- Social isolation (particularly in individual sports)
Additionally, these same individuals are also at a much higher risk of developing what is known as Sports burnout.
Sports burnout describes the physical or emotional exhaustion that comes with the long-term stress associated with sports performance. This burnout can result in mental health issues, declines in motivation, illness, fatigue, and the child abandoning any sport in its entirety (Gomes, 2017).
It essentially ruins their relationship with not only that specific sport but often physical activity in general. When you then combine this with its impact on mental health, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Performance pressure from parents and coaches
It is thought that sports burnout is not simply derived from an increase in physical stress (although that can certainly play a part), but rather the combination and accumulation of both physical and emotional stress (Merkel, 2013).
This means that the pressure to perform, the pressure to compete, and the pressure to succeed can all contribute to anxiety and sports burnout. As a result, the pressure placed on the child by both parents and coaches can have a direct impact on their likelihood of burning out.
There is evidence to suggest that coaches who use hard training as a form of punishment, only play the ‘best’ players, and over-celebrate wins, actually increase the risk of burnout occurring significantly.
Additionally, parents who place too much value in their child’s sports success can have a similar impact.
In this manner, parents can unintentionally set their child up for failure by establishing unrealistic goals for performance and winning, by forcing a young athlete to participate in sports beyond their readiness and interest, and by putting too much emphasis on winning.
Related Article: Adolescent Sport Participation & Mental Health
Love for the sport factor
Passion and talent both play an integral role in sports success.
To put it simply, those athletes who have an innate talent for a given sport, and are also deeply passionate about playing that sport, are much more likely to make it to the elite level than those who do not (Campbell, 2017).
Interestingly, these same factors have also been hypothesized to play a role in a reduced risk of burnout (Schmidt, 1991).
You see, athletes who experience burnout are often characterized by initially having a deep passion for a sport (potentially because they are good at it…). This passion is then lost as the stress of the sport, and the external pressures placed on the individual, become too much to bear.
The result is a hatred for a sport that they once loved, and are still quite good at – which, as I am sure you can imagine, can create further internal conflict.
Conversely, those children who continue to remain passionate about their chosen sport are less likely to experience burnout. Which actually gives quite a bit of insight into how you can keep your child’s sport enjoyable, and avoid burnout in the process.
Tips to keep sport it fun and avoid burnout for good
You should now have a pretty good understanding of how early sports success – and more importantly, early sport specialization – can negatively impact a child across their lifespan, and result in burnout.
Moreover, in this article, we have also outlined some of the things that contribute to burnout.
With all this in mind, I wanted to touch on some of the best ways to keep sports fun for your kids, and make sure that they never avoid burnout:
Tips for reducing burnout include-
- Do not specialize too early: Children who specialize too early are at a much greater risk of developing mental health issues later in life. Moreover, they are also less likely to be successful athletes in adulthood. In short, there is no reason to do it. Instead, encourage your child to actively participate in several different sports across the year’s duration.
- Keep it process orientated: As a parent, you want your kids to succeed. However, it is in your best interest to measure their success by the progress they make internally. Encourage their growth as a good sportsman, and the development of their physical and technical skills. Winning isn’t everything – particularly at younger age groups (although they should still learn to lose with grace…).
- Find a good coach: Find a coach who encourages your child and does not use training as a form of punishment. Simple, but it still needs to be said.
- Ensure they are recovering adequality: This means making sure that they are eating well and getting enough sleep. Poor recovery can result in illness, injury, and exhaustion – all of which can take away the joy of the game and make it chore (which can further contribute to burnout).
- Do not pressure your child to ‘make it’: Lastly, make sure that your child does feel pressure to make it as an elite athlete. Reinforce the fact that they are playing because they enjoy it, not because it will get them a scholarship or financial security.
Implement each of these tips successfully, and you can be pretty certain that you will go a very long way to keeping sports fun for your child – which will, in turn, keep their passion high and their risk of burnout low.
Take Home Message
Early sports success should never be your number one priority. In fact, chasing success can lead to poor mental health, a hatred for sport and physical activity, and a greatly increased risk of fatigue and burnout.
Instead, you should encourage your child to enjoy the sports that they play. Do everything in your power to keep them passionate, and their interest varied.
It is this that causes a lifetime of sport and health success.
Wojtys, Edward M. “Sports specialization vs diversification.” (2013): 212-213.
Nixdorf, Insa, Raphael Frank, and Jürgen Beckmann. “Comparison of athletes’ proneness to depressive symptoms in individual and team sports. Research on psychological mediators in junior elite athletes.” Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016): 893.
Merkel, Donna L. “Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes.” Open access journal of sports medicine 4 (2013): 151.
Amado-Alonso, Diana, et al. “Emotional Intelligence and the Practice of Organized Physical-Sport Activity in Children.” Sustainability 11.6 (2019): 1615.
Jayanthi, Neeru, et al. “Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations.” Sports health 5.3 (2013): 251-257.
Myer, Gregory D., et al. “Sport specialization, part I: does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes?.” Sports Health 7.5 (2015): 437-442.
Gomes, A. Rui, S. Faria, and C. Vilela. “Anxiety and burnout in young athletes: The mediating role of cognitive appraisal.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 27.12 (2017): 2116-2126.
Campbell, Kelly, et al. “Does love influence athletic performance? The perspectives of Olympic athletes.” Review of European studies 8.2 (2016): 1.
Schmidt, Greg W., and Gary L. Stein. “Sport commitment: A model integrating enjoyment, dropout, and burnout.” Journal of sport and exercise psychology 13.3 (1991): 254-265.