Diversity and Play in Childhood Sport

Is your son or daughter a budding soccer/hockey/baseball/tennis (insert sport name here) star at the tender age of 5?  Have you enrolled him or her in a series of year long training camps hoping to set them up for a career in high level sports?  Is the need to make sure that the child has ‘every advantage’ above the competition outweighing the enjoyment of sport and play?

There has been a lot of discussion in the news about the increasing push to focus a child’s athletic abilities on one sport while eliminating others.  As I drive around Calgary I see countless signs at gyms and community centres advertising sports camps aimed to hone specific athletic skill sets.  Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with practice and dedication!  However, current research has shown that early sport specialization does more harm than good in developing the abilities of young athletes.

In high level sports, elite athletes risk developing muscle injuries, caused by overuse.  There is no reason for young children to develop over use injuries regardless of what future athletic goals may be.  While a child may excel or show more interest in one sport, his or her developing body will benefit from playing multiple sports. This will also help to guard against injury.

Early specialization can lead to early burn-out and or boredom.  What begins as an enthusiasm and a love of the game can quickly turn to resentment and frustration.  Adult emphasis on being the best and focusing on improvement can turn many promising children away from a once beloved and fun activity.

What can be done instead?  Allow the child to try different activities.  Build in breaks in the sport season and allow them to miss the activity if required.  There will be plenty of time for extra practice in the future.  Encourage unstructured play, such as playing catch or throwing the frisbee around with friends.

The following quote from Wayne Gretzky sums up this message:

“In youth hockey, in most cases, it’s really important for kids to play other sports – whether it’s indoor lacrosse or soccer or baseball. I think what that does is two things. One, each sport helps the other sport. And then I think taking time off in the off-season – that three- or four-month window – really rejuvenates kids so when they come back at the end of August, they’re more excited. They think, ‘All right, hockey’s back, I’m ready to go.’ “ The Globe and Mail, Sept.26, 2008.

Remember that most children will not grow up to play in the NHL or be stars in the next Olympics.  However, all can enjoy movement and can develop a lifelong love of activity and fitness.

Dr. Jennifer Thomas, DC

Dr.Jennifer Thomas’ approach to treatment is one that focuses on each patient’s individual needs.  Techniques practiced include Diversified adjusting, and myofascial soft-tissue techniques. She believes that active patient care is an important component in the achievement of health goals, incorporating exercise and lifestyle counselling in treatment. .


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