Why specialising in one sport could harm your child

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Every sport-loving parent would like their child to become a superstar, and represent Australia at the Olympics or on a national level. For some parents, it's more than a passing thought and they invest much time and money into creating who they hope will be the next big name in sport.

However, you may be the parent wondering if your child has missed the boat. If they aren't specialising in tennis and training 5 days a week, can they really expect to be the next Lleyton Hewitt? If they haven't been on skis since the age of 2, can they even dream of winning gold like Alisa Camplin at the Winter Olympics? The answer may surprise you. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) says that recent research has shown that "a high proportion of elite Australian athletes took part in a diverse variety of sports before specialising around 13-15 years old."

Paediatric Physiotherapist Alice Hill from Little Movers Physiotherapy believes delaying specialisation until the teen years, and sampling a variety of sports, is very beneficial and helps to prevent serious injuries in young athletes. Hill explains that "engaging in the same repetitive actions can cause muscle imbalances and place repetitive stress on a child's muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones." She also explains that children have growth plates in long bones to allow the bone to grow and lengthen as the child matures. "Repetitive stress to the growth plates can cause stress fractures and stress reactions." This in turn can lead to growth problems.

Occupational Therapist Roisin Sullivan from The Kids Coach knows only too well the risks associated with specialising in a particular sport at too young an age. Sullivan treats children from a variety of elite sporting backgrounds, and often sees first-hand the damage specialisation can wreak on growing bodies. Sullivan recommends exposure to a variety of activities while children are still growing and developing.

While parents often see dedication to one sport as an admirable trait, the opposite can also be true. A child who wants to sample a different sport every term or every year while they are young, is actually building and strengthening their motor skills.  Sullivan concedes that a "well-rounded child that's had a strong development in lots of physical skills could potentially be in an advantageous position for their sporting future."

Ellyse Perry is a perfect example of a well rounded athlete who has been able to use her skills in a variety of sports to excel at an elite level. Before specialising and becoming a dual international in cricket and football (soccer), Perry also played touch footy, tennis and golf to a high level, as well as excelling at athletics.

Likewise, Paralympic athlete Richard Nicholson competed in a variety of sports including gymnastics, archery, swimming and powerlifting before turning his attention to wheelchair racing.

But what happens if you have the opposite type of child, who only wants to play the one sport and is not interested in anything else? Sullivan explains that "neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain, body and nervous system to learn and integrate information together) is highest in kids at the age of two and then trails off into adulthood." For this reason, she believes that it is beneficial to expose a child at a young age to the sport they want to specialise in at a later stage, but cautions that "it shouldn't be the sole sport they are well exposed to." Sullivan suggests using high profile sportspeople from the child's favourite sport to illustrate how much better an athlete they can become through sampling and "accessory training".

The long term benefit of sports sampling even extends to a possible prevention of obesity in later years. As Paediatric Physiotherapist Alice Hill explains, research has shown that "sampling a variety of sports during childhood increases the likelihood of participation in sport as an adolescent." This is supported by the AIS who credit a diversification in sports as a factor in reducing later dropout and burnout from sport.

Both the AIS and the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend waiting until at least 15 years of age before specialising, in order to maximise and promote a range of skills and enhance the possibility of later sporting success. There are a few exceptions, like gymnastics (due to its multidirectional movements, usually on soft matting which reduces impact), but it is still recommended that children take at least a three month break from any sport during the year.

Persistence and dedication create elite athletes, but sports sampling may actually be the key to sporting greatness.  Letting your kids try a different sport every year while they are young is actually setting them up for sporting success. You might think you have a child who can't commit, when in actual fact you're raising tomorrow's gold medallist.