Walking the Line on Sports Specialization
Written by Catherine Holecko
My daughter is a figure skater who’s on the ice at least three times a week and also participates in off-ice training. Extracurriculars, especially other sports, have fallen by the wayside as she devotes more time to skating. She competes as an individual and is also a member of a synchronized skating team (yes, that’s a thing!). That means I worry when I read the bad press about over specialization in sports. Because I know the concerns are real: Specialization is often driven by parents and coaches, not kids. It can very easily lead to overuse injuries and burnout. It makes sports into a chore and a duty, instead of something fun and healthy. But here’s the thing: So far, my tween is still on the “fun” side of that line. She would skate every day if she could. She has never complained about going to the rink, never asked if she could skip a lesson or a practice or a competition “just this once.” And while she’s given up some activities to make more room for skating, she has tried many over the years: soccer, karate, gymnastics, flag football. Unlike her brother, who’s more of a sports sampler, my daughter found something she truly loves early in life. And like so many sports today, skating happens to be a year-round commitment—there’s no off-season. Instead of wringing my hands about whether she’s overcommitted, I keep my eye on my daughter’s health—mental and physical. I regularly ask myself: How many hours a week is she skating? Research suggests that one hour per week per year of life should be the max. So for my 11-year-old, 10 hours a week is the upper limit—and she’s not nearly there yet. Is she active in other ways? Overspecialization can crowd out all other activities in kids’ lives, and that’s not healthy. They need free play too—at least half as many hours per week as they spend on organized sports. If my daughter regularly rides her bike to school, dances during gym class or goes swimming with a friend, she’s in good shape. Is she anxious about her sport? Sure, competitions, tests and try-outs are stressful. But so far, they’re also fun for my skater. She’ll listen to her coach’s counsel about what challenges to take on, but she’s not afraid to say “That’s too much for me right now.” If she doesn’t place well in an event or pass a test, she’s bummed out—but not for long. When she nails that skill the next time, it feels even better. So I’m satisfied that my skater is training safely. Now, if only adults didn’t insist on asking her whether they’ll see her in the Olympics one day. That’s the standard response from everyone who hears that she skates. Ugh—please hold the pressure, okay? Catherine Holecko is the family fitness expert at About.com. She lives in Wisconsin with her tweens, husband and dog.