When I was a kid, it was nothing to squeeze a volleyball match, roller skating, swimming, running, wiffle ball and climbing trees into a few short summer days. As I grew old enough to play organized sports, there was basketball in the winter, soccer in the fall, track in the spring and softball every summer.
I didn't become an Olympic athlete, but, damn, I had a good time. I also think I learned a lot about teamwork, strategic thinking and discipline – skills that still serve me well. The variety kept me engaged and passionate, and I think the skills I developed in one sport actually helped me in some of the others.
As a mom, I want my tween-age daughters to also enjoy playing multiple sports. But that has become pretty impossible.
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Since the time they turned 6 or 7, I've been told by other coaches, other parents and some teachers that if I want my kids to play a high school sport or have a shot at a college athletic scholarship then they need to focus on one sport. It's the only way to compete with today's one-sport wonders.
My oldest daughter turns 13 in two weeks. It's a big deal. She's becoming a teenager. She's starting to think about high school, getting her driver license one day, where she wants to go to college some day. What she should not be worrying about is the sport she needs to specialize in for the rest of her life.
If she wants to play soccer, she has to try out for a traveling team and play year-round because seasonal rec leagues at her age are pretty non-existent.
She loves to run middle and long distances, but I have been continually told by local running clubs that I am doing her a disservice by not letting her train year-round.
Her friends who are boys are being told that they can forget about making the cut on their high school baseball teams if they haven't played year-round baseball since they were old enough to tie their own cleats.
This obsession with one-sport kids not only ruins the fun for a generation of young athletes, it also goes against conventional wisdom. Speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and twisting are emphasized differently in different sports. By focusing on only one sport, children don't get to use multiple muscles and movement.
Instead, what they get are burn-out and injuries.
More than 3.5 million kids under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students. Since 2000, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of serious shoulder and elbow injuries – dubbed "Little League Elbow" – among youth baseball and softball players alone.
Dr. Jordan Metzl, director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes in New York, told MSNBC that he has diagnosed a pelvic stress fracture in a 9-year-old girl who was playing soccer two to three hours a day, five to six days a week.
Parents who enroll their 5- and 6-year-olds in sports leagues like to dream that their kids have a shot at being the next wunderkind. We've all heard the stories about Tiger Woods, Michelle Kwan, Michael Phelps.
Here's a story you probably haven't heard: Michael's sister Whitney Phelps was once a gifted swimmer, too. Ambition ran so high that she swam as a national champion through back pain for years until she was diagnosed with two bulging spinal discs, a herniated disc and two stress fractures. She was 14.
If you want your kids to emulate a professional athlete then let it be someone like former Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, considered one of the greatest pro athletes the U.S. has ever produced. In high school, Brown played football, lacrosse, baseball, basketball and track. Or Wonder Girl Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who achieved All-American status in basketball and won gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics before going on to become a pro golfer.
One-sport mania has become so out of hand that the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness has issued a report warning that "overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout among child and adolescent athletes are a growing problem in the United States."
Sports requiring overhead rotation of the arms – baseball, softball, swimming and volleyball – are the greatest risk for overuse injuries. Running, gymnastics, dance and cheerleading also have been identified as risky if done over and over again without a break.
To address the issue, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine has created the STOP Sports Injuries Campaign, which recommends that parents encourage kids to take at least one season off a year and to mix it up, playing different sports to avoid using the same muscle.
Given the chance, I think most kids would love to dabble in more than one sport. Now all we have to do is convince their parents and coaches.