Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Fear, greed, broken dreams: How early sports specialization is eroding youth sports

VANCOUVER — Kyle Turris is an NHLer because of his dog. Well, maybe not exactly, but while growing up his golden retriever deserves at least some of the credit for turning Turris into a 12-year NHL veteran.
Glen Mulcahy
Youth sports advocate Glen Mulcahy, founder of Paradigm Sports, cautions against early single-sports specialization in youth.

VANCOUVER — Kyle Turris is an NHLer because of his dog.

Well, maybe not exactly, but while growing up his golden retriever deserves at least some of the credit for turning Turris into a 12-year NHL veteran. His ball-obsessed dog would chase a young Turris around their Burnaby backyard, the future hockey pro carrying a ball in his lacrosse stick as his hyperactive blur of fur tried to snag the hard rubber prize.

Call it skills training.

“It helped in ways, like rolling off checks, and just being smart with how you protect the ball,” Turris said to Postmedia last week.

“Just the athleticism that you can grow up with from the fun stuff like that from being outside. Playing games makes things a lot more fun.”

Turris played all the sports growing up: Lacrosse, hockey, tennis and golf, to name a few. It helped him establish a solid athletic foundation, amplifying the genetics given to him by his lacrosse legend father Bruce and, most important, giving him enough enjoyment to stick with sports.

These days, alas, the fun in youth sports is rapidly fading, the dreams of children replaced by the ambitions of adults.

As the system has become increasingly more “adultified,” there has been an atrophy of equal value in the numbers of children playing sports. A U.S. poll showed a 70 per cent attrition rate of children who quit sports for life by the age of 13, most of whom cited a lack of fun as their reason.

Associations in different sports across the country are bleeding participation numbers, like B.C. Soccer, which said its enrolment fell seven per cent from last year. That mirrored a recent study by the Aspen Institute, which recorded a 23.5-per-cent drop in U.S. players ages 6-12 over a five-year period.

The trend towards early single-sports specialization — defined as nine months or more of a single sport, to the exclusion of others — has been fingered as the main cause. While other activities, like video games or the rise of alternative, non-traditional sports, have contributed to the bleeding, specialization is the cause of most of it, from overuse injuries, emotional and psychological damage, to straight burnout.

“The adultification of sports has left out who it’s supposed to serve — those young men and women,” said North Vancouver’s Matt Young, a fitness company innovator recently tapped by the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce its athlete development model.

“Sports is supposed to be a dress rehearsal for life: winning, losing, feedback, roles, responsibility, victory, defeat. It’s supposed to be about that athlete’s journey. But it’s turned into being about the parent, about how many wins the coach has. The focus is off the kids.”

Early starts, early finishes

Ottawa Senators strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz calls it an “epidemic.” The man responsible for training elite players like Turris says athleticism is declining among today’s NHL players. And he says it’s starting early.

“Ask your kid if he or she can somersault. See if they can play catch with both hands. Can they run backwards? Do those three things. I think most parents would be astonished that their kids can’t do it,” he told Postmedia’s Wayne Scanlan last week.

Children’s physical literacy begins at an early, discovery stage: moving, falling, jumping. Then it’s fundamental movement skills in the elementary school years: hitting, catching, agility, striking, before learning skills and drills in the 10-12 age range. It’s in the third stage where the erosion of enrolment numbers begins.

The data is readily available, and damning. Early specialization has negative impacts on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of athletes, both in the short and long term.

Implanted into the public’s psyche as ostensibly the only path to get to the professional or post-secondary ranks, the driving force behind it isn’t the children who dream of being the next Connor McDavid — it’s the parents who dream of being the next Earl Woods. But the data shows this path does more harm than good.

“Six per cent of high school athletes go on to play in college. Maybe two per cent of those go on to a professional career. If you ask any parent, I’d say 99 per cent think they’re the two per cent,” said Young. “The evidence is there … (and) tragic. On the quantifiable side of things, from a physiological level and psychological level, we’re damaging kids. The evidence is there that overuse injuries — that’s the physiological level — are rampant.”

Take young female soccer players, who are tearing their anterior cruciate ligaments as early as 10 years old. Since 2002, there has been a 400-per-cent increase in those injuries in girls aged 10-17 in North America.

In youth baseball across North America, 57 per cent of Tommy John surgery — once nearly exclusive to the ranks of professional pitchers — is being performed on players aged 15-19. Tommy John surgery is named after the MLB pitcher of the same name, who was the first to undergo an experimental treatment where the ligament in the elbow of the affected arm is replaced with a tendon from the forearm.

The Oakland Children’s Hospital surveyed 200 NBA players, and found that those who were single-sport athletes starting in Grade 8 were injured at a rate 10 times higher than those who were multi-sport athletes, and had shorter playing careers.

“(Parents) are aspiring for their kids to reach that really, really high plateau, when what they should be doing is just loving watching them play, and encouraging them to try as many sports as they can,” said Delta’s Glen Mulcahy, who started Paradigm Sports, a resource for coaches and parents, about five years ago.

Playing multiple sports provides a physical literacy, a base of fundamental movement that crosses sports and prevents overuse injuries when the body is still too young to handle those repetitive motions.

“There’s a massive physical toll that is being taken on young bodies, and one of the biggest things is because kids don’t go play in the park anymore, they don’t fall out of trees, they don’t have this multi-movement childhood,” said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project.

“All the experts will tell you if you teach people to move correctly first — you make them athletes first — then later on the sports-specific skills, that’s the best way to prevent injuries and give people the best chance to be successful.”

That means that Under-6 travel soccer isn’t the ideal place to start.

Numerous athletes, parents and health-care professionals were contacted for this article. All were more than willing to discuss their experiences, but the stigma attached to the meat grinder they had endured made them hesitant to be identified publicly, expressing the sentiment that it was akin to voting for a politician who turned his back on the platform that had got him elected.

It was, in short, embarrassing to be confronted with their own mistakes — especially if they were still stuck in the system.

One local physiotherapist at a large athlete development centre has a 14-year-old in elite sports, who trains nearly the entire year round, obsessing over the data and information that comes with wearable technology.

“These kids aren’t taking time off. It’s recommended that they take a big chunk of time off from their primary sport every year. I have one child in a high-level sport, and they take one week in the fall, and two weeks in August. And that’s it. They’re not encouraged to take the time off,” said the doctor.

“It’s great to see (her) learn through the experience, but I wish (she’d) done something different. She’s quite isolated, especially when she’s injured, because she’s not going to her social things. I’m lucky I have two kids. I get to do it differently the second time.”

The athletes most prized by the NCAA are ones who have the complete package. Take UCLA baseball coach John Savage, who said: “We like ’em cross-trained. Stick with multiple sports as long as you possibly can, and people are going to see your tools. Stick with one sport long enough, and people are going to see your scars.”

Scars of all kinds

Emotional burnout is another byproduct of an intensely competitive environment for a group whose biggest wants and needs are being ignored. A study by Amanda Visek at the University of Washington (D.C.) showed that the focus for children is the fun and social aspect of sports, and they rank winning and competition near the bottom. Adults flipped those values when polled.

“That’s the customer. That’s the avatar. That’s the kid, who’s saying this is what’s fun about sports, and this is what’s not fun,” said Mulcahy. “We’re not focusing on the top six. Right now, we’re focusing on the bottom 10 of these characteristics. It’s no wonder why these kids are quitting. We’re not cluing into why they play.”

And those who aren’t left with chronic injuries are left with emotional ones.

Kelowna’s Kiana Lalonde nearly lost herself when her basketball career was taken from her. A broken leg, three blown knees and four surgeries over a four-year span ended her elite athletic career. The former Kelowna Owls player, who began focusing solely on basketball around Grade 9, was recruited by UBC despite missing her senior season recovering from her first catastrophic knee injury.

The summer after the Team B.C. player spent a month in an air cast, and a summer before she was to attend the Point Grey campus, Lalonde blew out the same knee — her ACL, MCL and meniscus, for the second time — and spent her first two weeks at UBC rolling around campus in a wheelchair. She spent the year as team manager and in rehab, and just about 12 months later, her knee went out again in practice.

“I went down, and I felt my knee pop, and just kind of release again. I knew. I just knew,” said Lalonde, a 5-foot-11 guard in her playing days.

“All I wanted to do at that point was call my mom. I went down to the team room (to call). She picked up the phone, and I literally couldn’t breathe. It was suddenly real. I think the first thing I said to my mom was ‘my basketball career is over.’ ”

Kiana Lalonde: ‘When it was made apparent to me that my basketball career, at least my elite one, was ending, it was an identity crisis. It really was. I did not know what to do.’
It was a crushing end to a lifestyle she’d been around her entire life.

Her mom, Jacquie, had been a standout at the University of Oregon. Father Al had been an all-star at UBC. Grandmother Heather Semeniuk had coached the Okanagan College basketball team through its transition into UBC-Okanagan, retiring after 21 years in 2015. Uncle Darren Semeniuk joined the coaching ranks after his CIS career with the University of Alberta, coaching OC and UBC-O’s men’s teams, and just guided the Owls to their first 3A provincial high school title.

Kiana loved the sport, but the sport didn’t love her. And when it was over, she had to find a way to cope.

She stepped away from the game, studying at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., for a semester. She returned, on a path towards healing, and still helps manage the women’s basketball team, even though the act of stepping into the gym still stings.

“When it was made apparent to me that my basketball career, at least my elite one, was ending, it was an identity crisis. It really was. I did not know what to do. It was some of my darkest times, for sure,” she said. “(It was) knowing that some things are just out of our control, and sometimes things just happen, and there’s not a reason for it.

“Since I got out of the bubble that I was in, it really opened my eyes as to what was out there. It was a huge, huge part of coping with my basketball identity crisis, and realizing that I am not basketball. Basketball never defined me, even though I may have felt that way.”

Having a sense of humour helped, too.

“I’m a single-sport athlete now,” she laughed. “I play rec dodgeball.”

There are those who quit sports for good early, sabotaged by “psychological daggers” inflicted by coaches or teachers, said the University of Manitoba’s Dr. Dean Kreillaars. And there are those on the elite path who are emotionally stunted, unable to deal with life outside of their sport.

Kreillaars, one of the world’s leading experts on physical literacy and health, related a conversation he had with Lanny McDonald, the NHL Hall of Famer.

“If you ask him how many outstanding citizens … there are out of all the teammates that you had, after they had a good career in the NHL, … his answer to you will be only about one in 23 players,” said Kreillaars. “(Many of them) after they leave hockey will have lost their identity because they are over-specialized, and their identity is 100 per cent tied to a single sport. They have no versatility, and no longevity, and no durability.”

Shouting in the wind

None of what has been written here is new information. It’s been around for decades. The IOC released a statement in 2005 damning the emergence of early specialization exactly because of the physical, psychological and social ailments associated with it. Same for all the rising injury rates and diminishing sports participation numbers.

So why do parents bury their heads in the sand?

Marketing, say the experts. Youth sports was a $7-billion industry in 2014. Last year, it cracked the $15-billion mark. As illustrated in January’s Vancouver Province feature “The Money Pit: Why Professionalization of Youth Sports is Worrisome,” the skyrocketing costs of youth sports are largely due to the cottage industries that have sprung up around it, from pricey sports academies to year-round leagues or specialized training and coaches.

“The business of sport has become big, and it feeds off the primary human motivators: fear and greed,” said Young. “Every parent has a fear of missing out.”

Dr. Tommy John, son of the former Major League pitcher who made history by being the first to undergo the experimental tendon surgery, has written a book called Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent’s Survival Guide. He also blamed the industries that are pushing the professionalization of youth sports to their own financial benefit.

“The elephant in the room is the $15-billion-a-year industry that is youth sports. It’s billions of dollars that people are gaining putting out a message that states, ‘Your son or daughter must compete year-round … compete early on, specialize early on,’ ” he said. “It’s a fear campaign coming at the parent who only wants the best for their kid. Their biggest fault is they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the best for their kid. Unfortunately, they don’t understand it’s not the appropriate way a human develops, nor is it the healthiest manner of going about creating the best athlete possible. But we’re dealing with a billion-dollar industry.

“So not only are we having to rehab them orthopedically, they’re also seeking psychiatric care for anxiety, attention deficit and depression that stems from them trying to overachieve early on, before they’re even able to.”

There is progress being made. Nova Scotia’s provincial body started an awareness campaign “Get More From Sport” directly aimed at combating this issue.

Sports organizations, long just as culpable as parents in making this problem prevalent, are working together now. Kreillaars cited the co-operation between White Rock soccer club Coast FC and Semiahmoo Minor Hockey which, of their own accord, harmonized their schedules last season so their common athletes could play both sports.

The idea of late-age stage specialization, usually around the age of 16, when athletes have matured physically enough to handle the rigours of intense training and are emotionally advanced enough to understand the mental demands, is gaining traction in sporting communities.

Kreillaars was a speaker at a World Health Organization conference in Geneva recently, where they have added physical literacy — the early-learned foundation of movement and athleticism — to a global action plan on physical activity.

“We need to devote an intense amount of resources to remedy this problem,” he said. “The revolution that we need to have is: ‘We all believe in physical literacy.’ ”

And it doesn’t have to lie with traditional sports, either.

Caitlin Pentifallo Gadd, the director of Innovation and Impact for Vancouver-based sport-inclusion organization viaSport, pointed to the rise of non-traditional sports like sport climbing, just added as an event in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Its numbers grew by 130 per cent last year, an increase of more than 1,000 members.

“We were really proud to support new and emerging sports like sport climbing and Ultimate, both of which we funded for the first time in 2016-2017,” said Gadd. “While the participation drops that have been observed in some sports are alarming, there is definitely growth happening in others.

“It could very well be that the landscape is shifting in sport, and with that we also need to think about how we conceptualize, account for, and recognize ‘sport’ as well as participation.”

Parents need to encourage their children to try multiple sports — and activities — to become well-rounded people instead of narrowly focused athletes, says Mulcahy.

“It’s really simple, and it will sound like an oxymoron, but kids play sport for one reason: to have fun. They’re quitting because it no longer is,” he said. “If we can reintroduce free play, even if it’s unstructured, in our youth sports, where they play for the sake of playing and not for the sake of competing, that itself will make it fun again for kids.

“We’re not only depriving them of an opportunity to play other sports and activities, but what about things like band, art, drama, music, computer science, reading — all of that stuff that should help them become well-rounded people? If they specialize, they don’t have the time for any of it. We’re making them little robots, really early, and it’s no wonder they burn out really fast.”