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The risks and rewards of 'specializing' early

Emily Logan was just 3 years old when she decided she wanted to ride horses. By the time she was 12, she had tried everything — soccer, cheerleading, softball, dance, musical theater, figure skating and more — but her focus never wavered. Now, the Redmond teenager is living her dream and riding almost every day.

Like Logan, many of today’s kids have the opportunity to find and follow their passions. And as parents, it’s easy to feel like we must identify our children’s unique talents early in order to help them reach their fullest potential. After all, we want them to get ahead, to stand out from the crowd, to be successful.

There are risks, however, especially from sports, when it comes to specializing early. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children avoid athletic specialization until after adolescence. It cites research showing that children who participate in a variety of sports play better, longer and with fewer injuries than those who specialize before puberty.

One reason for this is that playing year-round sports doesn’t give a child’s body the chance to rest and heal, says Dr. Gregory Schmale, sports medicine clinic chief at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. “Beware of the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. Pain is a sign that the child needs rest.” Parents and coaches should monitor the amount of time and repetitions young athletes are performing and know when they should stop, he says.

Dr. Laurel Saliman, an orthopedic surgeon with Swedish Pediatric Specialty Care, sees patients every day who need to take a break. “Specializing in a particular sport subjects a young, developing body to repetitive stresses that may permanently change its anatomy and lead to health problems later,” she warns.

Social and emotional risks

Besides facing physical dangers, children who specialize exclusively in one activity may experience emotional and psychological problems as well. “A child who has mastered a particular skill may not feel comfortable trying new activities where he or she is a beginner,” says Saliman. “Also, if the child must give up a specialty, the psychological impact can be devastating, especially if the young athlete’s circle of friends is limited to members of his or her team.”

Or, the young specialist may simply not have time for friends at all. “Most riders in the area are older than me, and all of the other riders in my barn are adults, so I do miss not having much social time with people my age,” Logan admits.

Bob Dannenhold, a private college counselor and founder of Seattle’s Collegeology, says having a strong specialty at the expense of social activities is a definite negative when it comes to college applications. “Colleges are looking for well-rounded generalists who have taken appropriate social risks in high school,” he says. “They want students who can bring something to their school, get out there in the community, and be involved.”

Another concern is schoolwork. “It’s tough because my job is to support and advocate for students and I want them to follow their dreams,” says Emilie Bosone, counselor at Bellevue’s Odle Middle School, “but I also need to educate them on how making positive academic choices now can open numerous windows of opportunity later.” Although many kids she talks with believe they are going to be the next Babe Ruth or Bill Gates, she tries to encourage them to have a backup plan in case their dreams don’t materialize. “I always remind the kids that if they allow their academics to slip, the doors start to close,” she says.

The positives

Despite the dangers, specialization in activities can offer significant rewards for kids. Liam Kelly, a student at Bellevue High, believes specializing in soccer has only helped him. “Playing soccer year-round has taught me many valuable life lessons,” he says. “It has created a sense of responsibility when it comes to doing school work.”

Liam’s mother, Sue Kelly, says she’s happy her son has been able to foster friendships apart from his neighborhood and school chums. “He gets to see things from different perspectives, which helps him stay open-minded,” she says. “Being part of a team has also helped Liam learn to cooperate with others to accomplish a common goal, boosted his self-confidence, and developed his leadership skills.”

Colleen Holder, director of admissions at the Chrysalis School in Woodinville, admits that staying rounded while specializing is a balancing act, but she feels that for many kids, it’s worth it. “Specialization can be great for children,” she says, “if they’re in an environment that can nurture their needs for balance and still allow them to be kids.”

Laurie Thompson is freelance writer and mother of two from Bellevue. See more at LaurieThompson.com.


Originally published in the October, 2007 print edition of ParentMap

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