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Updated: May 18, 2023

Being Active for Life: A Physical and Social Perspective

A Six Part Series Explaining The Athletic And Social Development Model To Be Happy And Active For Life



Athletic and Social Development are keys to being active for life. Check out this five part series that explains the developmental milestones that allow athletes to be successful and active for life.

Part 1: Landscape Of Youth Sports And The Foundation To Be Active For Life

Parents of youth athletes often ask, what is best for my son or daughter when it comes to playing sports? What should he/she be doing to develop as an athlete and most of all as a person? At the heart of it, most parents want their children to participate in sports to build character, learn life lessons, develop friendships, to be active, and to enjoy the experience.

When Do These Expectations Change?

The moment a child participating in a youth sport is successful and touted as being talented, the seduction of success, positive validation from others (i.e., parents, coaches, and teammates), and winning start to cloud those core expectations for both the parent and child. For parents, the idea of their child climbing the ladder of success by using their talents to open doors for better coaching, invitations to train and play with the best athletes their age, and ultimately, the dream of having their child receive a college scholarship and/or become a professional athlete become the primary objectives. For the athlete, the notoriety of playing for the best team be it in your area or nationally, winning, and the positive social attention garnered through social media and friends and family can be intoxicating. Surprisingly, these expectations can start as early as age 12 and younger.

The Case For Being A Single Sport Versus A Multi-Sport Athlete

The topic of single sport specialization and multi-sport participation at the youth level is always a hot topic amongst parents and coaches. We are currently in an era where early sport specialization is the expected norm. Travel teams, select teams, and/or competitive club programs (of all sports) are promising youth athletes that early sport specialization will make them a better player, increase their chances of being noticed by a college coach or professional scout, and/or provide the tools and resources necessary for athletes to one day become a professional athlete. Parents whose children are on these teams will recruit as well by telling prospective parents that early sport specialization will increase their child’s chances of one day making the varsity team for their local high school and to receive an athletic scholarship to a Division-I college/university.

A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletes is a USA Today article written by Jaimie Duffek. Duffek cites that athletes tend to specialize in a sport on average at age 12. She then states the following as reasons why early sports specialization can benefit young athletes (Duffek, 2017):

a) Earlier Peak Performance. For sports like gymnastics, athletes’ peak performance is reached in adolescence. Experts agree that specialization enables these athletes to compete in their sport when it matters most.

b) Attain “age-group” success. Specialization may be the best way for athletes to experience “age-group” success. In other words, if it’s a baseball player’s dream to win the Little League World Series, committing to baseball by the age of six or seven is the way to gain success in this age group.

c) Join elite clubs with access to top coaches. By focusing on one sport from a young age, athletes have access to elite clubs and programs that attract top coaches. These best-in-class coaches have resources at their disposal to help players develop the skills they need to play their sport at the highest level.

d) Achieve the 10,000-hour rule. Many advocates of early specialization also cite the “10,000-hour rule,” which indicates that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest level of performance in an activity. If an athlete starts intense, focused training before the age of 12, chances are, they’ll hit that 10,000 hour mark much sooner than an athlete splitting their time between multiple endeavors.

For these reasons, it makes sense why single sport specialization can be beneficial for athletes, in the short term. The important takeaway from Duffek’s article is that single sport specialization at the youth level is to an athlete’s advantage if they are seeking age-group success. So, if a club or organization preaches that they will help your son or daughter get a college scholarship or more opportunities to become a professional athlete, it should raise some red flags.

Lastly, when people discuss single sport specialization at a young age, there is always the counterargument stating the importance of multisport participation. Duffek is no different, she flips the coin and provides the advantages of being a multi-sport athlete as well (Duffek, 2017):

a) Experience long-term success. While it might sound counterintuitive, multisport athletes tend to experience longer-term success over their one-sport peers. They are also more consistent performers who tend to suffer fewer injuries, and multisport athletes have a much higher chance of being active adults.

b) Limits overuse injuries. Overuse injuries occur when an athlete repeats the same motion over and over again. Playing multiple sports gives athletes time to heal and develop different muscle groups, tendons, and ligaments. With the rise in overuse injuries in youth sports, this is an important point to remember.

c) Less pressure, less burnout. Burnout is a real problem for athletes who specialize too early. After all the practices, skills development, and games growing up, they (athletes) get sick of their sport by the time college comes around. Multi-sport athletes haven’t had that intense emphasis on one sport. Therefore, they are more likely to retain their love of the game.

d) Accumulate cross-sport skills. Multisport athletes gain different kinds of skills that they can apply from one sport to the next. This enhances hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion, communication, and athletic agility. Who wouldn’t want the speed of a sprinter with the hand-eye coordination of a baseball player on their team?

There are valid reasons for kids to participate as a single sport and as a multisport athlete. As stated by Duffek, sport specialization is better for the short term or for athletes seeking immediate success at their age, while participating in multi-sports is better for long-term success as an athlete. There is no easy answer to this debate, especially for parents, since they are ultimately the one’s who have to decide what is best for their child.

So, What Are We Missing and How Do We Stick To Our Core Values?

One thing that is often forgotten is the importance of childhood development and socialization. There are plenty of examples of child athletes who were extremely talented and were highly successful at a young age. This list includes athletes like Tiger Woods, Todd Marinovich, Freddy Adu, and Jennifer Capriati. All of these athletes achieved early success in their sport and went on to become professional athletes, yet struggled socially and emotionally.

A Life Long Process

Participation in youth sports can be a helpful part of the process of developing physical skills and life skills. And, as mentioned at the start of this article, the heart of youth participation in sports is about building character, learning life lessons, developing friendships, being active, and making sure that children just play in the moment and enjoy the experience.

Consider the following information and think about whether these needs are being met for your child as an athlete in their sport(s), by their coaches, by the organizational culture of the team(s) or club(s) they play on, by their teammates, and from parents.

Physical and Social Development

While your child’s physical development is dependent on being active, her/his social interactions are important for personal growth. Being physically and socially active can work hand in hand to help or stunt a child’s growth as an athlete and as a person. To better understand this process, let’s examine the long-term development of your child from both athletic and social emotional perspectives.

Erik Erickson’s Theory of Personality and the 7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development provide useful information to help parents understand the social and athletic milestones for your child(ren).

Erik Erickson, a renowned developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, believed that over the course of a person’s life, she/he develops through social adaptation. Meaning, as people interact and develop social relationships throughout their lives, their ability to problem-solve determines their development and personality. Erickson developed 8 Psychosocial Stages of Development from birth to death. (McLeod, 2013)

7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) was created by Canadian Sports for Life Society. This model provides age appropriate levels of training and skills development for athletes. The goal of the Canadian Sports for Life Society is to educate people on age appropriate training and skills development so that kids and adults will become more active, stay active, and pursue excellence in sport. This information can be found on the Canadian Sports for Life webpage:

Together, Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development (McLeod, 2013) and Canadian Sports for Life Society’s Long Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD)[1] ( ) can help parents of youth athletes better understand the social-emotional and athletic milestones that your child will face over the course of his or her life from infancy to adulthood. I categorized these two methodologies into age specific areas of growth. I hope this information helps parents to determine if their child is participating in an environment that allows for physical and social-emotional growth.

[1] Full descriptions of both developmental models are available at the end of this article.

*Note: Erikson’s model and LTAD do not have exact dates as both models recognize that everyone develops at their own pace.

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