Lifestyle

Concerns bubble up as more young athletes specialize earlier

Myles Sargent of the Seacoast United Navy pitched during a game against the Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Myles Sargent of Seacoast United Navy pitched during a game against Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

In his best-selling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell famously detailed the so-called “10,000-Hour Rule,” the principle that the key to success involves amassing at least 10,000 hours of focused practice in your chosen field. In few places has this notion seemingly become more apparent than on the fields of youth sports, where there’s been a dramatic rise over the past 15 years or so in “hyperspecialization” — players who focus on one sport year-round.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Coach Eric Wells of Seacoast United Navy addresses his team earlier this month.

By definition, not every kid is going to be an “outlier.” But the proliferation of athletic programs such as camps, clinics, travel teams, and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments has heightened an emphasis on individual excellence — at the expense, some critics say, of the health and well-being of the nation’s youth, particularly the younger members of that group.

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The rise of injuries among developing athletes — especially those who specialize — has been widely noted. Sports medicine professionals estimate that overuse problems account for about half of all pediatric sport injuries. Studies show that year-round baseball training has led to a drastic increase in so-called “Tommy John” surgeries among this group. Similar repetitive strain injuries have been on the rise, including hip problems for hockey goalies and ligament tears for progressively younger basketball and soccer players.

“There are lots of forces here, and not a lot of hard statistics on it,’’ said Dr. Mininder Kocher, associate director of the division of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Kids 12 and under, both boys and girls, are still in their growth stages. Their growth plates are still open. Their bone and soft tissue biomechanics are different than a 14- or 16-year-old. They’re also still developing neuromuscularly — balance, coordination.’’

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Beyond the potential physical fallout of early specialization is the psychological and emotional toll on young athletes who feel pressured to perform at high levels, says Brooke de Lench, an advocate for youth sports reform.

“Parents are more intense, pushing kids more at an early age, than they were 15 years ago,” says de Lench. That’s when the Concord mother established the MomsTeam Institute, a watchdog resource for parents of “sports-
active” children. She recently produced and directed “The Smartest Team,” a PBS documentary about reducing the number of concussions in youth football.

She often hears from parents who regret the amount of family time they’ve devoted to their children’s practice schedules: “They’ll say, ‘We as a family never really slowed down. We were on a treadmill.’ . . . That is a very vicious cycle. It’s damaging to the family unit. The kids will look back and say, ‘Where did my time go?’ ”

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In some cases, the drive toward overspecialization reflects the ambitions of a generation of helicoptering parents. Tiger Woods’s early success inspired a wave of tiny kids swinging golf clubs year-round, and many parents have heard of peers who have been dragging their sons and daughters to AAU tournaments since they were learning to write in cursive.

There are also practical concerns. Amid rising college tuition rates, there are parents who are hoping to alleviate some of their impending bills through scholarships.

“There’s definitely a case here and there where the parents just want the best for their kids,’’ says Scott Dubben, a three-sport athlete who played baseball at the State University of New York at Oneonta and now directs the indoor/outdoor baseball program at Seacoast United, a network of multisport facilities based in Southern New Hampshire. But he says he tries to make it clear from the outset that “a very small percentage of high school athletes become scholarship athletes, or even college athletes at all.”

Seacoast United Navy members watch from the dugout during a game earlier this month against Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Seacoast United Navy members watch from the dugout during a game earlier this month against Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

Other parents say their children are making their own decisions to specialize. On a recent Monday holiday, Penny Rabatsky, a sixth-grader from Sharon, attended a softball clinic run by Division 1 college coaches at Dirt Dawg Sports, a three-year-old indoor baseball and softball training facility in Canton. Penny has committed to softball full time after playing some basketball.

Her father supports whatever decisions she makes. “I tell her straight-up — as long as you’re having fun,” said Dan Rabatsky, who has been coaching his daughter’s recreational softball teams.

But Rabatsky admits that “it kind of bummed me out” when his daughter announced her intention to quit playing basketball. “I always played multiple sports growing up,” he said. “It’s good for development.”

In fact, many orthopedic experts recommend that active children play more than one sport to reduce the likelihood of repetitive strain injury. Additionally, coaches and sports psychologists often note the benefits of learning to play multiple sports. Play-making creativity typically increases when an athlete has more than one frame of reference to draw upon.

Danny Hutchinson of the Seacoast United Navy hits a line drive during a game against the Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Danny Hutchinson of Seacoast United Navy hits a line drive during a game against the Seacoast United Carolina in Stratham, N.H.

‘They’ll say, “We as a family never really slowed down. We were on a treadmill.” . . . That is a very vicious cycle. It’s damaging to the family unit.’

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Many experts say that specialization becomes less of an issue at the high school level, when young bodies have grown bigger and stronger and elite athletes may be preparing to play a particular sport in college.

Still, recreational diversity might be preferable for all but the most truly gifted athletes. At Dirt Dawg, coach Todd Usen watched as several members of his “college showcase” softball team participated in the clinic. The team, sponsored by the facility, has been invited to play in Europe next July as part of the America’s Team ambassador program.

After the clinic, the coach noted that while Division 1 softball programs might be looking for young women who have specialized in the sport, “a lot of colleges in Division 3 will tell you they’re recruiting ‘athletes’ ” rather than single-sport specialists.

For girls playing for their high school teams in fall and winter sports, Usen insists that those schedules take priority over the obligations of his softball showcase team. Yet some high school coaches have been trying to restrict players from committing to off-season teams like the Dirt Dawg Sports’. One of Usen’s players said she was told last year that she wouldn’t make the basketball junior varsity if she continued to train with the softball team.

“She’s been playing both since she was this high,” said her disappointed mother.

With the rise of indoor training facilities, one-on-one coaching sessions, school vacation camps and AAU programs, there are now pay-to-play opportunities to participate in virtually any sport year-round.

In fact, wealthier families may be more likely to have children who play more and to specialize sooner. While there isn’t a lot of research on the subject, one recent study found that the rate of serious overuse injuries of young athletes from families that can afford private insurance is 68 percent higher than that of families on Medicaid.

The idea that children should concentrate on a single sport from the time they’re in elementary school will often backfire, says de Lench. In fact, she believes it can be the quickest way to get your child to burn out on a particular sport.

Most importantly, she says, parents need to listen to their kids and let them decide what sports they think they’d like to play.

“It’s a very complex issue,” she says. “You almost have to look at it kid by kid.”

That’s what she did with her own sons. She had triplets, all boys. By the time they were fully grown, they ranged in height from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-6. Counterintuitively, it was the shortest one who was fanatical for football; the tallest of the three tried his hand at basketball but couldn’t jump very high and eventually quit.

“He ended up playing squash,” says de Lench, “and doing amazingly.”

Ultimately, says de Lench, the question covers the bigger picture: “What does the whole health of a child look like?”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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