When most people think of youth sports, I'm sure they picture a mini soccer field with smiling girls in pigtails. Maybe they play a quick half-hour "game" that really only consists of picking grass and occasionally cartwheeling. Afterward, there are juice boxes and Rice Krispies treats on the field, and everyone gets a little trophy with a little spinning soccer ball. Regardless of how the game went, they all get to feel like winners.
My experience was a little different from this.
There is a rising phenomenon in our culture that has been gaining more and more exposure in recent years. This trend is known as early sports specialization. Basically, this is when a child begins intense training in a single year-round sport from a very early age in hopes of achieving elite status. Experts have a lot to say about the issue, and the majority have deemed this practice detrimental to both the child's mental and physical health.
I am a living, breathing early sports specialist now turned adult. And I have to say, I have mixed emotions about the subject. Much of the data collected is undeniable, and so much of it speaks to me on a personal level, reminding me of everything I have been through in my experience as an elite athlete. However, I cannot say I completely agree with the experts who believe that this trend should die, as I can honestly tell you I would not be the person I am today had I not committed to becoming an elite figure skater at age 5. It shaped who I am, and I wouldn't take it back for the world, even if some of the things I've gone through were rather bleak.
The circumstances I have undergone were not anomalies. I am simply another statistic, another number piling onto the data proving the rather destructive power this trend holds.
The first things to be affected most directly are a child's social interactions. Researchers have concluded that youth sports specialization almost always fosters social isolation. I can attest to this. As early as age 10, I began leaving school early to fit in more hours of training at the rink. Essentially my day consisted of nearly three hours on the ice and at least one hour spent off-ice training. Plus the time to warm up before and stretch/cool down after practices, I was spending nearly six hours a day at the rink. This was more time than I spent at school in a day.
Basically, my priorities got flipped backward. I saw my life as something that unfolded at an ice rink. That was where my friends, my peers and my role models all were. It was not a huge community, and it vastly isolated me from people my own age. As I grew up, I became more and more aware of the fact that I was not a "normal girl." And I didn't even necessarily know what normal people did or what their lives consisted of. Everything was skating to me. It was all I knew.
All this being said, I eventually cultivated a major identity issue, another trend that researchers have observed among young athletes like me. Being trapped in these intense and cutthroat worlds can eventually influence a child's perception of their quality as a human being—an athlete and not a person. I felt that if I didn't have skating I wasn't really worth anything, and it became very difficult to look in a mirror and distinguish myself as a person from myself as an athlete. It was all the same to me.
Possibly the risk that affected me most intensely is the physical risk, or the wear-and-tear that committing to a sport so early can inflict on your body. Chronic repetition of specific sports activities inflicts continuous microtrauma on the bones, muscles and tendons, making early sports specialist athletes susceptible to overuse injuries from a very young age.
By the time I was 14, I began dealing with multiple overuse injuries from my waist down that would only recur after they healed. I experienced several stress fractures in my right foot alone that would immediately flare up again even after I gave them proper healing time. It came to a point where my body simply could not handle the trauma anymore, and I'm sure I will experience repercussions later in life for the kind of training I sustained all those years.
So no, the experts are not wrong. The risks they have detected and exposed are all too real and definitely have a great effect on a child's life all the way into adulthood. However, what the experts don't tell you is this: specializing in a sport early on gives you the type of determination, grit, perseverance and work ethic that you need to sustain you through your entire life. Because I committed so much of my life to this sport and have been through so much in the process, I know now that there is nothing I can't handle. I'll always think to myself, "If I made it through that, I can definitely handle this."
I wouldn't trade a single grueling day of training for the character that it has instilled in me today. This is why I believe that if a child is truly passionate about something, they should not let these possible "risks" keep them from fully pursuing it. The long-lasting effect that chasing your dreams will have on your life is priceless, whether or not those dreams are ever attained. Because of skating, I am confident that wherever I am, whether it be a rink, a classroom or an office, I will know how to get up when I've fallen down, how to patch up my bruises, put one foot in front of the other and continue on.