During childhood, children are best in learning, especially physical activities. In most cases, sports are culturally attached to children growth. They feel that by so doing, they provide their child with a chance of becoming a megastar. Geoffrey Mike (2004: 12-16) states that, “Specializing in one sport before puberty leads to immediate sport-specific skill improvements”. They view early specialization as a way of improving a player’s competitive advantage. Parents and coaches are advised to introduce their children in sports and try to specialize so as to have an advantage over their competitors.
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Many parents whose children excel in sports claim that their children specialized in the sport early and hence their competence is attributed to this. Geoffrey Mike (2004: 26-31) further argues that, “A certain degree of early specialization is necessary for optimal individual and team performance in sport”. Even team players in many cases look upon the players who are said to have specialized in a particular field during childhood days. The Royal Canadian Golf Association developed a general approach aimed at maximizing an individual’s performance in sports (Geoffrey Mike, 2004: 13-18). The Long Term Player Development approach aims at recruiting and ensuring that children specialize in golf to facilitate their performance once they grow up.
Many parents believe that their children may earn scholarship due to excellent performance in a particular field of sport. This trend has recently risen due to the global commercialization of sports. Teachers and parents in schools are continuously pressing their students to specialize in sports that seem to be attracting world attention such as athletics and football.
A child’s sports development can be manipulated to fit in the doctrine of growth and adulthood. Charlie Houston (2002: 32-36) states that, “Tailoring a child’s sports development program to suit basic doctrine of growth and maturation, especially during the ‘critical’ early years of their development”. This helps a child to attain full potential and increase permanent involvement in sports and other physical activities. Even at an early age, a child feels that he/she is best suited for a particular sport. This is clearly seen where children are found calling themselves by the names of the most famous athlete or footballer of the year. Charlie Houston (2002: 42-44) further argues that, “value addition to talent must be done as early as possible. One should therefore specialize as early as it is realized, especially in childhood”. If one does not specialize in the field where he/she is talented, there is a possibility that the talent might never be of much use to that person.
Charlie Houston (2002: 24-26) states that, “the most prosperous athletes have a background that points portrays that they specialized in athletics at a very early age”. This argument can not be refuted completely because, even in the current day, children at an early age demonstrate their prowess in a particular field of sports. It doesn’t need training for a child of 7 years to defeat fellow age mates by far all the time it comes to running competitions. Even the child knows that no competitor of his age can defeat him in the race. In a study conducted by the Swedish psychological association, it was established that, “the children who continue to lead their age mates in a particular sport in childhood end up becoming competitive in that activity”. This argument justifies early specialization in sports.
Tolerable levels of exercise are additional facilitators for proper growth and development in children. Chapman Cornell (2002: 16-18) states that, “Properly organized sports enhance the realization of a talent”. It means that, sporting should not be done haphazardly. Most of the injuries inflicted through sports come as a result of improper identification of the particular activity that somebody should be engaged in at a particular time. Early specialization coupled with a good instructor in an enabling environment brings up perfect individuals with a greater competitive advantage compared to those who specialize after adolescence.
Early specialization brings personal confidence and self esteem. Chapman Cornell (2002: 23-26) states that, “The appreciation and applause from spectators mean a lot to the competitors. They instill a sense of confidence and victory in the victor”. This is a very important factor to base the need for early specialization. Most athletes fail because of lack of confidence. If an athlete is aware that he has been winning in a particular event, the confidence buildup will always be a factor for him/her to win another time. If this confidence is acquired over a long period of time, it then means that a mature athlete has an advantage over those who specialize in their adult days.
Some sporting activities need much practice and hand-on experience. Sports such as motorcycle riding and those others that involve use of fast moving machines need long time experience or else become lethal to the handler. Children are known to enjoy playing with toy cars even before they realize that it is a sporting imitation. Chapman Cornell (2002: 27-29) further questions that, “If these children develop the fondness of such an object, before they realize that there is a bigger one that can be used for sports, why shouldn’t this fondness be developed in to a specialty in sporting?” It sounds reasonable to give the child a more fundamental training in that field to ensure that it does not become wasted. The same can be applied for the children who become fond of the ball or athletics.
Chapman Cornell (2002:13-15) observes that, “if you announce in a group of children set to play a football game for someone to volunteer as a goal keeper, one or two will surely volunteer”. From this observation, it is clear that it is not specialization that makes the volunteer to become a goal keeper, but the fondness of being in that position. It would be therefore very unnecessary to induce athletics in to such a child. He would feel out of place and would only be free if allowed to perform what he what he feels best suited for.
Geoffrey Mike (2004: 33-36) regards early specialization in sports as a manifestation of advancement in society. He states that, “Rewards for expertise in a specific area outweigh generalized knowledge or skills, leading to competition for those specialized roles-and to specialization among youth athletes at progressively earlier ages”. This argument portrays early specialization as a way of improving the chances of excelling in athletics hence gaining the benefits attached to expertise in a particular field. Geoffrey Mike (2004: 17-21) further argues that, “training in a specific sport should only begin when the general conditioning for the sport is almost completed and when the young athlete’s character, talent, and inclination suggest that his/her chances for success are good”. This indicates the feeling that those who are affected negatively due to early specialization follow an unsuitable choice hence the negative impact on their bodies.
Smoll & Smith (2006: 22-26) state that, “An athlete who practices a skill with increased frequency and duration could become more proficient at that skill”. This indicates that the longer the period of specialization the more the adeptness in that field. It therefore means that early specialization allows an athlete enough time to gain the desired expertise in athletics.
Arguments against early specialization in sports
Dave Fieldman (2008: 16) believes that, “Waiting to specialize until the age of 12 or 13, when children are more emotionally and physically mature, helps ensure that they are pursuing an activity that really interests them rather than trying to fulfill a parent’s or coaches dream”. He views the encouragement by parents and coaches for children to specialize at an early age as deprivation of children’s rights. They are compelled to devote virtually all of their time to the sport, just for the love of their parents and the desired to please their coach. The children end up succumbing to social seclusion and deprivation of social advancement opportunities.
Many parents feel that putting their children in sport is the best thing to do. However; this might not be the best thing to do. It may end up causing dire psychological consequences. Dave Fieldman (2008: 19) states that, “Playing multiple sports develops a broader foundation which leads to enhanced performance when the athlete specializes”. This statement stipulates that it is important for a child to get involved in as many sporting activities as possible, in order to have a variety of them to choose from. By so doing, the chances of a child specializing in a field in which he can not excel are minimal. More over, the child is able to tell the differences that exist amongst different games and therefore will be more knowledgeable in terms of sports.
In his study, Morgan Johnston (2006: 33) found out that, “The most significant issue was that many players who had been superior to the eventual elite while in the 12-14 age groups had been burned out-of the sport”. This is an indication that early specialization is not the key to a successful sporting future in ones life. Such players find it hard to get incorporated in to different sporting fields and end up loosing their sporting vigor. Participating in several sports increases an athlete’s many-sided advancement and development of superior qualities like muscle strength, swiftness, stamina, litheness and skill. A combination of all these qualities facilitates an athlete’s competitive advantage.
Athletes who only play one game grow with a trivial base and the recurring activities may result in an inequity of muscles and rigidity. This affects litheness and performance. According to Morgan Johnston (2006: 26), “Between the ages of 6 to 14, athletes should be focused primarily on developing fundamental proficiency in as many athletic skills as possible”. Fundamental proficiency is important if the athlete is going to pursue athletics in future. This is because the skills learnt at an early age may never get lost and will always assist in all endeavors of sporting. An example is when a child is playing football and basketball and the coaches realize that he has the potential of becoming an athlete. If children specialize in one sport at an early age, most possibly they might not realize their hidden talents in other fields of sports.
Specialization discourages multilateral development. This is development of a child in diverse sports which later enhances performance when an athlete specializes. Morgan Johnston (2006: 44) further states that, “Playing baseball enhances hand-eye coordination; playing soccer trains endurance; playing football increases strength and speed; playing tennis increases coordination and speed; playing water polo increases strength and endurance”. This clearly stipulates that for the desired qualities in sports to be realized, parents and coaches should allow children to participate in a variety of sports, rather than push on them to specialize at an early age.
Early specialization hinders the ability of the child to plan and train to hit the highest point for significant sports competitions. According to Smoll & Smith (2006: 17), “For young athletes, playing multiple sports breaks the year into different seasons which keeps the young athlete mentally, physically and psychologically fresh”. It also decreases the occurrence of injuries due to excess of sport. Morgan Johnston (2006: 26) states that, “The risks range from ‘overuse’ injuries such as stress fractures to delayed menstruation, eating disorders, emotional stress and burnout.” Many athletes experience terrific recurring stress on muscles, joints and ligaments due to training all year round. Specialization should come as a gradual process in order to allow the body muscles to progressively and slowly move from a wide range of activities to a specific field. This helps to avoid over use injury.
Children enjoy the fun of participating in a variety of games. In these games, they meet with a variety of trainers, team mates and different sporting environments. This slowly brings the development of the child’s interest to a particular sport, in which he can specialize later in adulthood. It is therefore unnecessary to specialize in childhood, only to succumb to burnout before the appropriate time for sporting comes. Morgan Johnston (2006: 39) argue that, “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early”.
Dave Fieldman (2008: 18) further argues that “Competitiveness in a variety of sports contributes to the physical, emotional, and intellectual development of children and adolescents. Experience in sport can build self-confidence and encourage social behaviour”. He associates high-level specialization in sport in childhood with biological restrictions for performance and risks of a mental and societal developmental nature. Rigorous training for advanced sports contests may create withdrawal and emotionally wounded kids. Extreme physical exercise in most cases causes the loss of the useful impact on the skeletal system affecting growth and development. Training becomes traumatic and disturbs normal growth.
Measures to prevent early specialization in sports
Parents and coaches are being encouraged to ensure that their children do not specialize at an early age. A policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2008: 44) advised that, “Youngsters should be discouraged from specialization in a single sport before adolescence to avoid physical and psychological damage”. Parents are advised to allow their children to participate in a variety of activities, especially the ones that they seem to be fond of. This will ensure minimal overuse injuries and the psychological effects associated with early specialization.
Coaches are advised to conduct positive coaching time after time to reduce the risk of suffering exhaustion in young athletes. Parents are advised to ensure that they do not associate their self esteem with the success of their kids in sports. Children should not be taught to focus on just emerging as winners in competitive sports. Instead, they should be encouraged to mainly focus on active participation and enjoyment. The policy further advices parents to show understanding and support and be aware of the fact that exerting undue pressure on children may never bear the excitement that enhances performance in children. Rather, they should employ a little amount of psychological enticement which is enough to bring excitement in children for them to perform.
The International Federation of Sports Medicine recommends that, “only children without health risks are admitted to competitive sport and, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for advice regarding the various possible sports and training”. This will help ensure that the health of the children is not put at risk while coaches try to pressurize them to perform. The federation further states that, “The coach has a pedagogical responsibility for the present and future of the children entrusted to him/her beyond the purely athletic task”. With this information, the coach will bear in mind that children have special needs associated with growth and development. Putting these needs in to consideration ensures that the knowledge of the coach is diversified and therefore will avoid emphasizing on early specialization hence avoid the associated risks.
Children rights activists emphasize that a child’s distinctiveness and chances for further development must be known by the coach and used as the main basis for organizing training programs. Training for maximum performance in children should not be practiced. Children should be exposed to a wide range of sporting activities in order for them to identify the most appropriate game. This helps in development of interest and enjoyment hence a reduction in dropouts due to early specialization. Children should not be exposed to competitive long distance events. This may hamper their growth and development.
There are athletes who have suffered injuries due to early specialization. In his analysis of injuries acquired during rigorous sporting activities, Michael Sokowe (2008: 32) points out to Arlington, an athlete since early adolescence who says, “I’m only 23 years old and already I’ve had three separate ACL reconstructions and 1 meniscus repair for injuries from soccer and athletics”. At the age of 23, Arlington is too young to have undergone such treatment. In the same analysis, Burke is another athlete who worries, “I’m pushing 20 years since I tore my ACL playing soccer and it’s nearly impossible to find any information about what I should be expecting (arthritis etc.) as I hit my mid 30s and beyond”. From Burke’s statement, it is clear that his ACL (Anterior Columnar Ligament- found in the knee) got injured at a young age of 15. It is clear that he specialized in athletics at an early age that could possibly have led to these injuries.
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