When I was a teenager, which was a long time ago (1980’s) the question wasn’t what sport did you play but how many sports do you play? Being a one-sport athlete in the 80’s was almost unheard of. We took pride in being able to play multiple sports. It was almost a rite of passage into coolness and acceptance amongst the kids in the neighborhood - plus it was just so much fun playing more than one sport. There weren’t as many distractions back in the day either. Most kids played outside all day and, in school, gym was still a required class at least twice a week. Today, many schools have forgone physical education, adversely effecting childhood obesity and overall sport participation. With less opportunities to play a variety of sports, more and more kids are now specializing in just one sport.
Why is this occurring? Who is to blame?
There are a number of reasons why there is a decline in the multi-sport athlete. However, the root cause of this issue cannot be surmised with one simple explanation. There are over zealous parents, advances in technology, budget cuts, inflation and political agendas - all of which have been contributing factors.
Today kids have many more distractions then I did as a teenager. Technology is one of them. Tablets, phones, and gaming systems are constantly glued to kids hands and eyes. Social Media has replaced athletic activities. Kids now have better movement in their thumbs than in their limbs. Good posture has been replaced with kyphosis by “smart device disease” (I made that up). Everyone is guilty, including myself, of being in a Smart Device Trance at some point. This has truly effected this generation in terms of activity level. Quite frankly, many kids would rather be on their phones and tablets than play sports.
The cost of college has sky rocketed in the past 25 years. Affordable college no longer exists so some parents see a college athletic scholarship as a way to get a free education for their child. The consequence of the overly involved parent, pushing their kid to excel at one sport, isn’t a healthy approach for the child or the parent. I see it all the time at youth sports games the over zealous parents yelling at the top of their lungs. Kids subjected to this behavior normally get burnt out really fast or end up quitting before high school. Research has shown specialization is not good for a kids’ development physically or emotionally. Parents should encourage and not discourage their kids from participating in as many sports as possible. But more importantly the sport the child plays should be FUN for them. Research has found that kids who play a variety of sports before settling on one, achieve higher levels of success and suffer fewer serious injuries (ProPublica, June, 10, 2014).
These days kids are less active and consume unhealthy amounts of sugar, resulting in the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, further affecting sports participation in the U.S.
- More than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012 (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, Flegal, 2014).
- Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years (Ogden, et al., 2014; National Center for Health Statistics, 2011; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).
- Overweight adolescents have a 70 percent likelihood of becoming overweight adults (Office of the Surgeon General, 2010).
Add to this the removal of physical education in many schools across the country you can now see that there are many contributing factors this issue.
According to the American Heart Association, only four percent of elementary schools, seven percent of middle schools and two percent of high schools have daily physical education class for the entire school year. Twenty-two percent of schools don't require physical education class at all!
When I was in school we had gym everyday and recess twice a day. Moving wasn’t an issue for us - not having enough time to keep playing was the issue. Today you have to force kids to put down their phones and go out to play. Budget cuts have adversely affected public school funding and the consequences have been the elimination of physical activities in school.
The trickle down effect has been the privatization of youth sports. There is a plethora of pay for play leagues now in most youth sports across the country. There are AAU, select, all-star and travel teams. It’s not uncommon to see some kids play in multiple leagues for one sport. Parents are relegated to glorified taxi drivers going from one game to the next while kids are facing pressures to succeed at one sport that wasn't as prevalent during my time.
Playing a sport has become very expensive and some parents can’t afford to have their kids play more than one sport. Some kids feel they will fall behind in certain skills if they split their time with another sport. Parents see a collegiate scholarship as the “in” for their child’s future, so they push them at an early age to focus on one sport.
The bottom line is, playing multiple sports is actually very healthy for the body and mind. It allows children to experience different challenges and develop a variety of skills.
Stay tuned for the next issue - Part II of The Decline of the Multi-Athlete!