Sports Should Be Child’s Play

June 26, 2014

David Epstein, writing for The New York Times, hypothesizes that hyperspecialization in sports at too young of an age puts our population at an increased risk of injury and “surgeries befitting their grandparents.”

Children are playing sports in too structured a manner too early in life on adult-size fields — i.e., too large for optimal skill development — and spending too much time in one sport. It can lead to serious injuries and, a growing body of sports science shows, a lesser ultimate level of athletic success.

We should urge kids to avoid hyperspecialization and instead sample a variety of sports through at least age 12.

In the article, Epstein discusses a variety of research that supports this claim. It turns out that the best-of-the-best athletes didn’t specialize in their field until much later in life; the “sub-elite,” on the other hand, focused on their sport from an early age, and never reached the higher ranks.

The discussion, in a way, flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s traditional ten thousand hours of practice rule, which, if we assume to be true, would postulate that starting a child on a specialization as early as possible would be a superior path. Epstein is also the author of the book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which is high on my to-read list. In it, he claims to tackle the nature-versus-nurture debate once and for all—I haven’t read it (yet) so I cannot comment on the conclusions he ultimately draws.