How many sports did you play as a kid? Two? Three? More? Now, how many sports do your kids play?
According to a 2014 ESPN survey, a whopping 40 percent of kids in America only play one sport, with upward of 70 percent of kids dropping out of youth sports all together by the time they reach their 13th birthday. Pretty scary, right?
Even with these alarming statistics, youth sports in America has exploded into a $15-billion-dollar industry, according to TIME magazine, largely on the backs of zealous parents with dreams of harboring the next sporting superstar.
The pressure on kids to specialize in a particular sport at younger and younger ages has never been more intense, thanks in part to visions of college scholarships and million-dollar pro contracts dancing in the collective culture’s heads. However, as today’s elite sports continue to add overall strength and athleticism to their skill sets, an overwhelming number of sports science specialists advocate for multi-sport participation — even after an athlete has chosen a career path. While it may pay off for true prodigies, dedicating a childhood to one sport will likely do more physical and mental harm than good with early rates of dropout and injury becoming more and more common.
“It just creates a cascading effect of negative outcomes,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Director of Sports Education Jon Casson. Casson has been spearheading the national governing body’s efforts to combat some of these recent youth trends through athlete, parent, and coach education and outreach.
“If you just look at the landscape of youth sports right now, they’re facing a lot of issues,” he says. “There’s obviously a lot of concerns out there amongst many NGBs and youth sports advocates about the pressures to win, early specialization, and the amount of pressure put on kids to compete at an early age.”
With rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease sounding alarm bells nationwide, there’s never been a more critical time to encourage our children to lead active, healthy lifestyles.
“That’s obviously pretty depressing for an organization like ours that wants to keep kids in it to reach elite levels, but also just for general societal factors,” Casson adds. “We want kids to be athletic and grow up to be happy and healthy.”
Thankfully, given skiing and snowboarding’s unique structure as seasonal sports that take place in the mountains, Casson hopes that the sports underneath U.S Ski & Snowboard’s umbrella will have some degree of immunity to some of the biggest issues currently facing other sports across the country like early specialization and dropout.
“A lot of our kids come from mountain towns which tend to be very active lifestyle communities,” he continues. “When they’re done skiing or snowboarding for the year, many kids will then play soccer or hop on their mountain bikes or any number of other activities.”
It’s well known that unless you have an immense amount of time and resources at your disposal, skiing 12 months out of the year is definitely not an option for the vast majority of ski racing families, when in comparison, a year-round soccer schedule would be considerably more feasible.
For all the talk about the dangers of early sport specialization, Casson is a proponent of what is known in sports education circles as early adoption, which is the concept of introducing young children to specific sports like skiing and snowboarding at as early of an age as possible, fostering a passion for the sport that will last a lifetime.
“Skiing and snowboarding are lifestyle sports that kids can participate in till they are 70, 80, 90-years-old,” he explains. “For kids to adopt it as a sport they are passionate about at a young age is something we really want to encourage. I think there’s a distinction between early specialization and early adoption. I think you can certainly cross the line into early specialization in some respects but due to the seasonal nature of our sport it’s really hard at a young age to focus solely on skiing.”
The one pitfall that Casson does see, however, is athletes focusing on competition over skill acquisition at too early of an age. Mikaela Shiffrin’s parents famously limited her racing as a youngster in favor of developing her technical skills and overall athleticism, a decision that is obviously paying dividends nowadays.
Casson says that what solving these issues really comes down to is education. U.S. Ski & Snowboard has put in place a number of programs and systems like SkillsQuest, the new training systems matrix, and understanding the balance needed between training and competition that are important tools that can be used by clubs to develop well-rounded athletes and skiers that have bright futures in the sport.
“It also comes down to parent engagement, parent involvement, and parent support and getting them to understand the big picture,” Casson says. “You have to have parents involved. There’s no athlete that has gotten to the top of their sport without a parent or a parental figure driving them to practice and making sure their clothes are on.”
What’s the moral of this story? Get involved with your child’s athletic education, but be careful to not let your own expectations and aspirations for them cloud your judgement. When it comes to proper athletic development, slow and steady does indeed win the race.