Early Sport Specialization Part 6: How Organized Youth Sport Affects Family Dynamics

The importance of physical activity in youth cannot be overstated. The myriad of health benefits that come along with physical activity, both mental and physical, are well-documented [1-10]. These benefits include improved self-efficacy, life satisfaction, cardiovascular fitness, bone health and strength, body composition, and improved cognitive and mental health [1-10].

In Case You Missed It…

If you haven’t read Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this article series on early sport specialization, I advise finding a bit of time to do so. You can view them herehereherehere, and here… and you can thank me later.

Part 1: A review of the research investigating the true odds of becoming a collegiate or professional athlete.

Part 2: Whether or not early sport specialization leads to long-term athletic success.

Part 3: How early sport specialization increases injury risk and can lead to athlete burnout.

Part 4: 5 simple strategies to prevent athlete burnout.

Part 5: Evidence-based sport volume recommendations for youth athletes… ~80% of youth sport coaches and parents don’t know them.

Now, onto the current article (Part 6):

The Long-Term Benefits of Physical Activity

The benefits of youth physical activity are not limited to the short-term, either. The physical activity and resulting muscular fitness acquired during adolescence have been associated with increased physical activity, improved physical and mental health and quality of life in adulthood [11-27]. It’s unfortunate that, despite our understanding of these extensive benefits, most children and adolescents worldwide still fail to achieve recommended physical activity levels [27-31].

Benefits of Sport Participation

Research suggests that participation in youth sport may offer greater benefit than physical activity, alone. Sport participation is a simple way for youths to maintain a healthy lifestyle, engage in social interaction, and find enjoyment in physical activity [32]. Youths participating in sport have been reported to have healthier eating habits than their non-athlete counterparts [33]. Although there have been associations made between youth sport participation and increased alcohol consumption, these athletes typically exhibit reduced usage of illicit drugs [34-36]. Associative links exist between youth sport involvement and improved academic performance [37-41], decreased likelihood of mental health-related issues such as depression, anxiety, and emotional distress [42-48], and increased self-confidence, self-esteem, perceived life satisfaction, and emotional health [7, 9, 38, 49-55]. Enhanced self-perceptions are associated with an individual’s motivation towards, and engagement in, team sport and physical activity in general [56, 57], which can be an important facilitator of sustained physical activity throughout life.

The Dark Side of Organized Team Sport and Early Sport Specialization in Particular

Although youth participation in organized sport comes along with a host of benefits, there’s also a dark side, particularly when there is a hyper-focus on a single sport beginning early during adolescence.

The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) defined early sports specialization as the combination of playing and training in a single sport for greater than 8 months per year, playing a single sport “to the exclusion of participation in other sports,” and starting this commitment prior to age 12 years [58]. Early sport specialization is becoming more prevalent over time [59-63], despite multiple groups advising against it, including The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), and the NBA and USA basketball [58, 64-69]. The rationale of avoiding early sport specialization is sound, as specialization can result in athlete burnout, overuse injury, decreased enjoyment, limited physical and motor development, and even family strain [70-75]. An often overlooked component of youth team sport, and early sport specialization in particular, is the impact that participation can have on the family.

Impact on the Family

Youth sport can have a considerable influence on the family, and individual family members’, way of life [76-78]. Outcomes can be positive and/or negative, for both individual family members and the family unit, as a whole [78]. While youth sport can increase family closeness or improve family communication [79], it can also increase burnout-like symptoms within the family unit [78]. The benefits of youth sport are vast and shouldn’t be discounted, but the focus of this post is to increase awareness of the potential negative outcomes for the family unit.

Research has identified large parental time [80-82] and financial commitments [82-88] due to the demands of youth sport participation. It’s essential that parents understand the commitment involved; having a child who specializes at an early age can be both physically and emotionally taxing for the entire family. Below, I’ll review some of the implications that youth sport and, especially, early specialization in youth sport, can have for the family.

Finances Down the Drain

Youth sports have become increasingly expensive over the years, requiring a substantial financial commitment by parents [83-89]. Early sport specialization often has a significant economic impact on the parents’ budget, with some parents spending up to 10% of their income on high-level sports for a single season [85]. Sport fees can range between $2,000 to $15,000/year, and may include team expenses, travel, facilities, uniforms, equipment, insurance, and tournaments, among other costs [85]. For example, recreational youth hockey-related expenses average $1500 per year. Parents of competitive young hockey players can spend between $8000 to $15,000/year, and equipment alone can cost upwards of $1200 [87]. Over two decades ago, Coakley (2006) observed routine expenditures between $5,000 – $20,000 per year to support a child’s participation in hockey, alone [97]. Hockey is not unique; other sports can be just as costly [87-89]. In taking costs into consideration, parents often fail to factor in the cost of league fees, registration, travel to games (which may include hotel stays, meal costs and admission fees to games). Parents may also need to take time off from work, resulting in lost wages. These costs can impose a significant financial burden to some families.

Parents oftentimes rationalize their spending on early sport specialization by considering it an “investment.” Youth coaches sell their services by telling parents that participation in elite select/club sport leagues will drastically increase the likelihood that the children will be seen by scouts and college recruiters [89]. Parents may decide to pay for this service with the hope that their child will have an opportunity to receive an athletic scholarship to play sport at the college level. Although parents attempt to justify these expenditures, the reality is that this same money could have been saved or invested elsewhere which might, then, be used to pay for a college education. Additionally, the odds of competing at a higher level are not in the athlete’s favor; only <6% of high school athletes go on to play at the collegiate level, and only <1% of athletes who play in college get drafted into the pros [90]. Some parents justify their financial burden by observing that, if they weren’t funding their child’s pursuit of elite sport, they’d be funding something else that might ‘keep their child off the streets,’ [91].

The percent chance that athletes at different competition levels will make it to the professional level.

As children age and the level of competition of the sport rises, the financial demands on the family are likely to rise, as well [94]. Once a child has committed to a sport, some families may struggle to meet the financial demands. This may entail increasing work hours, which decreases “family time”, and can cause increased parental stress [88, 95].

Ironically, there’s evidence suggesting that large family financial investments in youth sport have negative repercussions for the young athlete. Ryan Dunn et al. (2016) reported that greater levels of family financial investment were associated with higher athlete perceptions of parent pressure and decreases in children’s enjoyment and commitment to sport [96].

Multisport participation can drastically reduce the associated costs of sport. Participating in year-round athletics through school is substantially cheaper than investing in extra-curricular club/select teams. Also, many of the travel costs can be mitigated through school sport. If a multisport athlete does participate in extra-curricular club/select sport, the level of competition will likely be lower, which again, comes at a reduced cost.

Hefty Parental Time Investments and Lost Family Time

Participation in youth athletics requires a significant time investment by the family, and is nearly certain to affect family dynamics [63, 94]. In addition to the time required to watch games and travel to and from events, extra-curricular coaching, volunteering, and fundraising can suck up the family’s time and force significant family routine adaptations [73, 77, 78, 94, 96]. Parents have reported up to 20 hours per week of time devoted to a child’s sport programs [97].

There are a multitude of examples conveying how the child’s athletic schedule can drastically affect the lives of all family members. For example, the number of practices required for one child’s sport can dictate the schedule of the entire household. Family Holidays must be scheduled around competitive schedules and training, as well [94, 98]. It’s not uncommon for parents’ employment patterns, including the number of hours at work and away from work, to be dictated by the child’s sport participation schedule [90]. Some parents go so far as to choose employment opportunities with specific hours that comply with the child’s sport participation routine [94, 98].

The parent must coordinate travel to/from practices and games as well as make time for homework, meal prep, and adequate sleep. The time spent on the road and at the ball field or sport venue results in time away from the family. Parents must find a way to incorporate dedicated quality family time in order to maintain strong family bonds.

Coordinating travel plans, transportation to and from training and competitions, being present during the training or competition, and adjusting family routines have all been reported to cause stress to one or both parents within a family [80, 91, 99]. It’s not uncommon for the time investments and stress to cause sport-work or sport-family role conflicts for parents [100]. It’s clear that the time spent guiding the child through specialized sport can result in a lot of time where the family is segregated, as opposed to the time being allocated to quality family time together. In a study of 7 families of elite sport participants, Newhouse-Bailey et al. (2015) found that depletion of time caused by youth sport was cited as the biggest stressor impacting the families [78]. If parents decide to devote their time to early sport specialization for their child or children, it’s imperative that they find a way to incorporate dedicated quality family time in order to maintain strong family unity.

Youth-Sport-Impact-on-Parents

In interesting studies by Harwood et al. (2010), a set of semi-structured interviews were conducted with 22 British tennis parents [91-93]. Parents of highly specialized tennis players experienced greater time and family-related stressors, compared with parents of tennis players in the sport sampling stage [91-93]. Parents with children in the specializing stage encountered a greater number and magnitude of overall stressors than parents with children in the sampling stage [91-93]. These findings have been replicated by other researchers. In parents of specialized athletes, stressors associated with time are prominent [101, 102], and sport-family role conflicts are greater [106]. Early sport specialization increases the rate of the athlete’s progression to more intense levels of sport. As the athlete progresses, the financial, time, and emotional investment from parents (and athletes themselves) increase in parallel [101, 103].

Overall Family Health and Stress

Child sport participation has been reported to affect the parents’ daily schedule, causing changes to vacation plans and work hours [94]. Additionally, the time commitments of their children’s sport participation can cause parents to sacrifice their own socialization opportunities [103], as well as their own sport and physical activity participation [100, 104]. The hectic schedules of elite youth sport may cause more frequent eating of meals “on the run” [104], resulting in fewer meals eaten at home and more family fast food consumption [104].

When an uneven distribution of time of parental attention exists between an elite youth sport athlete and their sibling(s), increased tension, bitterness, and jealousy among siblings can result [88, 94, 98, 105]. This increase in sibling tension may add another layer of stress for the parents, which can then transpose onto the family unit. Due to their involvement in their child(ren)’s sports, parents sacrifice the time they spend together, as a couple. Consequently, considerable tension and marital strain may creep into the picture [78, 106].

After interviewing 6 parents from elite gymnasts, Lally and Kerr (2008) discovered that parents felt that the demands were extraordinary, which ultimately resulted in lost time spent together as a couple and subsequent damage to the marital relationship [106]. It was only after the child’s retirement from the sport that parents could re-establish their marital connection [106]. Weiss and Hayashi (1995) reported similar findings; in their study involving 39 parents of elite gymnasts, 70% of parents felt their home life revolved around the gymnastics schedule of their child “to a great extent” and 72% felt that their personal life also revolved around gymnastics [107]. Similar to the findings of other studies, parents reported large financial and time commitments as a result of their child’s involvement in elite sport [107]. In the book Developing Talent in Young People by Bloom et al. (1985), parents were reported to have gone to extraordinary lengths to support their young athlete(s). Parents left their jobs to provide transportation and support for their young athletes, relocated their families to ensure their children had access to particular coaches or training facilities, and even temporarily separated from their spouses and families to accompany children to their new training locations [108].

Youth-Sport-Impact-on-Parents-Time-and-Financial-Commitments

Summary

Youth participation in organized sport requires a family-wide investment of finances, time, and health. When a child is invested in organized youth sport, parents should expect to manipulate their daily schedules, family vacation plans, and work hours. Although not always the case, parents should also expect to make some sacrifices regarding their personal health and family routines (i.e. less time and energy to exercise, less quality time with significant other, greater reliance on meals not consumed at home, and increased stress).

As the young athlete climbs the competitive ranks, increased time and financial commitments will, likely, coincide. It’s important to be aware that, when parents invest more capital and time into their children’s athletic pursuits, young athletes may perceive higher levels of parental pressure which may, ultimately, reduce their enjoyment and commitment to sport. While early sport specialization is not a direct cause of these financial and social investments, and resulting family strain, it possesses qualities that may contribute more heavily to these negative outcomes, compared with multi-sport participation. Elite-level clubs are costlier, have higher travel demands and more rigorous schedules, require higher levels of commitment, and come along with higher levels of pressure to perform. On the flip side, youth sport provides opportunities for positive family interactions, and parents are willing to accept the familial sacrifices to provide their child(ren) with the opportunity to play.

Early sport specialization is not “wrong”, by any means, but it’s important to recognize how it may impact the family, and the young athlete, during crucial years of physical, mental, and psychosocial development. Given the other negative outcomes associated with early sport specialization, including increased risk for injury and burnout, extremely low probability of success(and higher likelihood of success with multi-sport participation), and multiple well-known organizations recommending against it, I also don’t advise youth athletes specialize in sport early during adolescence (in most instances), unless the young athlete makes their own choice to do so.

In the FINAL article in this series, I’ll discuss the research surrounding the incorporation of resistance training with youth, including youth athletes.


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