Youth sports require balance between practice, free play

Over 35 million children in the United States participate in some form of organized sports.  Many parents believe that this is the beginning of a professional athletic career.  Unfortunately, without careful monitoring, it is often the end of a professional sports career.

Youth sports participation can provide a boost to a young athlete’s self-esteem, confidence and discipline.  The ability to work as a team is a skill that leads to lifelong success.

There is an ongoing argument as to whether successful athletes are born or made.  Many believe that continuous practice is crucial, while others believe that success is based on a perfect genetic make up.  Interestingly, both are required to some extent.

The issue of early sport specialization was a recent topic of discussion at the University of Connecticut in a lecture by Dr. John P. DiFiori a sports medicine physician from UCLA.  

Dr. DiFiori discussed the differences between  “deliberate practice” and “deliberate play.” There is a belief that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve a sufficient level of skill to be successful at an athletic task. This type of deliberate practice often leads to overuse injuries and limits an athlete’s options to be successful at other sports.

Deliberate play refers to a less organized approach where children are not closely supervised and allowed to be creative.  It is this latter style of play that helped develop many older athletes and is found today in many inner city playgrounds.

During the cold war era, East German Olympic athletes were recruited to sports academies where they trained from a young age.  Interestingly, these young athletes were not allowed to specialize in a particular sport until after the age of 14.  Until then, they played many different sports and were allowed to develop a variety of athletic skills.

The development of a successful, healthy athlete requires a careful balance between random and organized play.