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Sleeping on the Risks of Overspecialization

When a young athlete specializes in a particular sport, he or she is solely focused on being the best they can be. They spend hours honing their skills in that sport, whether it be a strong jump shot in basketball or sound fielding techniques in baseball or softball.

However, all that focus on one sport could be causing kids to not focus as well during the day, according to a recent University of Wisconsin study.

Researchers at the university found that young athletes who specialize in one sport experience more daytime sleepiness than multi-sport athletes. Those who specialize struggle to keep focus doing things such as having conversations or doing their homework.

The idea of daytime sleepiness may seem like a hard concept to quantify, but this study attempted to do just that. Participants were asked a series of questions to determine how much they specialize in a sport. These questions focused on if an athlete plays a certain sport more than eight months out of the year and if they’ve ever quit a sport to focus on another single sport.

Once the athletes were categorized by how much they specialize in a certain sport, participants were asked questions to determine where they fall on the daytime sleepiness scale. This scale determines how much a person struggles with things such as face-to-face conversations, traveling or homework.

The study found that those who specialized the most were often the most tired of the group. These researchers, including study co-author David Bell, concluded this has to do with the amount of time and travel specialized athletes devote to their craft.

“If you traveled more, then you were also more likely to be tired,” Bell an assistant professor in the school's departments of kinesiology and orthopedics and rehabilitation, told Wisconsin Public Radio. “You can begin to see how this could create this kind of soliloquy of events for kids who are participating in one sport being highly specialized having trouble focusing on what they're doing during the day.”

This is not the first time researchers have questioned the idea of young athletes putting all their time and energy into one sport. A 2017 study from UW-Madison showed that high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during the playing season as opposed to those who play multiple sports.

Despite the numbers going against specialization in athletes, it’s still commonplace. Of the athletes who participated in the 2017 study, 28 percent of males and 40 percent of females said they specialized in one sport.

Sometimes, athletes can start over-specializing without realizing it. That’s where Bell and his colleagues are working to make parents and athletes more aware of this. They advise that children should be in organized sports the same number of hours a week to their age.

“What I tell people is that if a 10-year-old is playing 12 hours a week, I'm not going to break a sweat over that,” Bell said. “But if they're playing 20 hours per week, they're really increasing their risk of sustaining an overuse injury.”

While avoiding overspecialization is a goal for those such as Bell, the ultimate objective of doing these studies is giving athletes the best experience possible.

“We just need to have a balanced approach,” Bell said. “We don't want kids to stop playing sports, that's not the message that we're trying to send. We want to make sure that kids and parents are getting all the information and so the kids can actually have a really positive experience.”

From GameChanger and Ryan Williamson

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Youth sports, Inside Youth Sports, ethics in sports, advice, Coaches and Parents, sport parents, sport specialization

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