(Reuters Health) – The best way to get teens to play sports may be to let them sample a variety of different athletic pursuits earlier in childhood, a Canadian study suggests.
Researchers followed 756 kids starting when they were 10 or 11 years old, giving them quarterly questionnaires for five years to see what sports they were playing.
Kids who dabbled in several sports at the start of the study were 55% more likely to participate in recreational athletics five years later than children who didn’t start out playing any sports or who specialized in only one, the study found.
“Children have a lot to gain from engaging in a wide variety of sports,” said senior study author Mathieu Belanger of the University of Sherbrooke in New Brunswick.
“Through sport diversification children get to develop a wider variety of skills which will contribute to their feeling of competence in sports, which increases the chances that children enjoy their experiences in sports,” Belanger said by email.
The findings come as a growing number of children are specializing in a single sport at younger ages and participating in it year round to pursue spots on elite teams that may boost their chances of college scholarships down the line.
Children who specialized in one sport at the start of the study were 65% more likely to participate in sports during adolescence than other kids, the study found. But the early specialists didn’t have lower odds of nonparticipation as teens.
“If children specialize in only one sport and happen to drop out from that activity at one point, they risk having no other sport to fall to since they have not been exposed to them and have not developed complementary skills required to fully engage in them,” Belanger said. “Parents should therefore seek opportunities for their children to try different physical activities and also avoid having their children take part in any given sport year-round.”
In the first year of the study, 147 kids, or 19%, specialized in just one sport. Another 506 kids, or 67%, sampled a variety of sports and 103 children, or 14%, didn’t participate in sports at all, the researchers report online November 13 in Pediatrics.
Children who specialized in a single sport also tended to spend more time participating in organized physical activity as opposed to informal pickup games with friends.
With specialization, kids were also more likely to play sports competitively, with specific performance goals, and less likely to be involved in recreational sports as teens.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how sports habits in childhood influence how much physical activity kids get in adolescence. Researchers also didn’t look at the total number of hours kids participated in practices and competitions or examine whether youth played sports as adults.
Even so, the findings add to evidence that early sports specialization may not have health benefits in the long run, said Jennifer Sacheck, a researcher at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Put simply, specializing at a young age puts a child at an added risk for injuries, burn-out and emotional stress,” Sacheck said by email. “Cross-training is known to be a good thing for functional movement skills and motivation should be equally cherished in kids.”
For the kids who are truly motivated and gifted athletes, specialization needs to be handled with care, she advised. In particular, parents and coaches need to watch for signs of sports fatigue, such as when kids aren’t motivated in practice, get injuries or struggle to sleep well or to do well in school.
“Too much of a good thing can sometimes not be a good thing,” Sacheck said. “If a child has strong desire to specialize in a particular sport at an early age, parents should still try to maintain engagement in other complementary sports activities throughout the year, and this could be on a much less competitive level like intramurals.”