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Top athletes like Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky started out as toddlers. These and other examples of early athletes make many parents believe that the younger their children are involved in specialized sports, the better.

After all, it’s a competitive world out there, and if practice makes perfect, childhood athletes definitely have an advantage over their peers.

But do they? Experts recommend that parents lay off rigorous athletic activity for their children.

The Difference Between Exercise and Specialized Sports

It goes without saying that children need to move. Any parent knows that a growing, developing child needs to run and play. This is especially true in a world where iPhones, iPads and other technological gadgets keep children sitting for far too long.

But healthy play is very different from enrolling your child in a specialized sport and placing a lot of undue pressure on them too.

While it’s true that some children exhibit a proclivity for certain sports, it’s important to allow and encourage children to try a greater variety of athletics. Even the ones they’re not talented in. If your child’s an amazing soccer player, that’s great!

But make sure to expose her to other games that can help to strengthen and challenge many other motor skills and muscle groups.

Otherwise, soccer can become a source of stress and pressure, as well as physical and emotional duress. Here’s why athletic balance so important for children.

Child Athletics Causes Many Injuries

Sports journalist and author, Mike Hyman, tells all in his book Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. He writes that “every year, more than 3.5 million children under 15 require medical treatment for sports injuries, nearly half of which are the result of simple overuse.”

Your little swimmers, baseball players, and tennis players are all hurting. Why? When both parents and children place too much importance on winning and overachieving, a child’s pain and discomfort take the back seat. As they say, no pain no gain. Plus, peer pressure eggs both athletes and their parents on, all in the name of success.

But is it worth it?

And is there a solution? Fortunately, there is and it doesn’t mean you must pull your child off the team. Lyle Micheli, the founder of the first of its kind sports medicine clinic at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, says that “most of these overuse injuries are easily preventable.

By introducing variety, moderation and rest into every training, a child athlete’s risk can be reduced to nearly zero.”

If your child is a competitive, specialized athlete, make sure you allow time and opportunity for a balanced approach to sports. Even the U.S. Olympic Committee has conducted research on this matter.

And they found that many top athletes were engaged in a variety of sports until they were teenagers. Then, they started specializing once they were older.

Too Much Stress and Pressure is a Big Turn Off

Early child athletes may be very adept and talented, but they must keep up with very high standards. Children feel a lot of emotional duress and stress thanks to all the expectations and pressure on them. This is hard to keep up, and many children just burn out. They start to resent athletics and reject it entirely as they get older.

This study by Ohio State University concluded that early athletes who specialized in one sport ended up being physically inactive as adults. Instead, they could have enjoyed a more balanced approach to athletics and carried it with them through adulthood.

You see, when children athletes are mastering all the best moves and techniques, they’re also learning a very detrimental move: to go from one extreme to the other. From being an intense, child athlete to abandoning sports completely once they’re older. This can lead to unhealthy, resentful and sedentary lifestyles.

Deliberate Play Versus Deliberate Practice

If your child is only enrolled in a specialized sport, they miss out on all the benefits that deliberate play can offer. Deliberate play focuses on motivation and enjoyment, whereas deliberate practice only focuses on perfecting technique. It might be fun at first, but the pressure to please coaches and parents, as well as win games and competitions quickly wipes away the enjoyment.

Instead, when children take part in deliberate play more than deliberate practice, it supports their creativity, motor skills, and emotional ability. Ironically, the more your child spends in deliberate play, the more he’ll want to be an active athlete.

The explanation is simple. Most people are less likely to want to perform activities that are stressful, or that have negative associations, like pain and discomfort. But if you know your activity is fun, and that you can stop whenever you get tired or feel discomfort, you’re more likely to do that activity.

Reaching for the Stars Doesn’t Equal Stardom

Only about two to five child athletes, out of 1,000, become professional athletes. Now, it’s important to encourage your child to reach for the stars, dream big and keep their eye on the prize. And when their sports journey is fun, healthy and safe, they can aspire without burning out.

But when dreams start harming you, especially at a young age, it’s worth reevaluating your goals. If their sports lifestyle isn’t healthy now, it probably won’t lead to a healthy approach later.

Parent’s Priorities are Skewed

What parent doesn’t want to see their child succeed and achieve many accolades, especially at a young age? But unfortunately, parents place these accomplishments ahead of their child’s wellbeing. This can leave your child asking whether they have any worth or value outside of sports.

This can also lead them to accept pain and discomfort to win. Why? Because they’ve come to learn that by winning, they’ll be loved and accepted.

This is clearly an unhealthy mindset to install in your child. Unfortunately, with specialized early sports, you may unknowingly plant these concepts into their minds.

By encouraging and allowing your children to explore a wider variety of athletic activities, you help protect their physical and emotional wellbeing. What’s more, you set them up for a healthy relationship with sports for the rest of their lives.

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