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Podcast: The 'Arms Race' to Hyperspecialize in Youth Sports

(Edwin Martinez/Flickr)

The push for kids to specialize in one sport as early as possible (a la Tiger Woods) has become an arms race, ProPublica’s David Epstein says – not only putting heightened pressure on children to perform but also transferring injuries we typically see in senior citizens to youth athletes.

Ironically, there’s growing evidence that specialization isn’t even the best way to become outstanding at a sport, Epstein tells ProPublica’s editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg. He highlights how in UCLA, varsity athletes specialized in one sport at an average age of 15.4 while undergrads who played sports but didn’t make the intercollegiate level had specialized at 14.2. “I think we need to highlight that kind of data to show [parents] that actually for skill development, never mind if you don’t care about your kid’s health, but for skill development you’re going in the wrong direction.” 

Epstein also says the U.S. should take a cue from Brazil, the host of this month’s world cup, where children are weaned on a miniaturized form of soccer called futsal. The kid-size game allows players to touch the ball up to five times as frequently as they do in traditional soccer and the claustrophobic playing area means there are no wall flowers; everyone is involved and engaged. The ball is also smaller and heavier, making it better for skill development and preventing headers.

Baseball, in particular, could use a kid-friendly makeover, Epstein says – pointing to the need for a more rigorous pitch count and a smaller ball that is more manageable for youth athletes: “In other sports, we shrink the ball for kids. We haven’t done that for baseball; it makes no sense.”

Hear their full conversation on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, and read Epstein’s full op-ed here.

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