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Early Specialization/Travel Team Play Separates The Haves And The Have Nots

Do families with greater financial resources have greater access to scarce roster spots in high school, college?


One of the worst by-products of the select team system, at least before sixth grade, is that it foster elitism by creating groups of haves and have-nots:

  • Too much of a community-or club-based program's resources (best practice times, facilities, coaches) end up being devoted to such select teams, leaving only crumbs to the kids who supposedly aren't good enough (at least then; they may be "late bloomers") to be selected and are relegated to the less prestigious recreational or intramural programs.

  • Less affluent families who cannot afford the cost of expensive travel teams are shut out.  "Introducing high doses of organized sports to children before the age of 13 can cost thousands of dollars a year, so children whose families have the resources to pursue traveling club teams, private coaches, and expensive equipment inevitably acquire greater access to the sport pipeline that leads to scarce roster spots in college and even in some high school sports." (Sagas, 2013).

  • There is no proof that forcing "better" players to play with those who appear at an early age to be less skilled somehow keeps them from developing their "talent." As Michigan State's Daniel Gould observed in a 2004 article, "all children need coaches who are trained to be positive and encouraging," and that "young athletes who play for such positive and encouraging coaches have higher motivation, enhanced self-esteem, lower anxiety and lower dropout rates than children who play for coaches without these qualities." (Gould, 2004)

  • So-called "better" or "more talented" players do not deserve to play with similarly "gifted" players. At levels below high school varsity, every child deserves the chance to play, the best coaching, and to play on the best fields.  This is especially true given the fact that it is close to impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy which players at age nine, ten or eleven will be "stars" at age fifteen, sixteen or seventeen.

Paying a Price?

But are athletes whose families can afford the high cost of today's increasingly specialized and expensive youth sports paying a price in higher rates of injury?

The answer appears to be yes, according to new research presented at the International Olympic Committee World Conference on Prevention of Injury & Illness in Sport in Monaco in April 2014, for the first time linking overuse injury rates in young athletes with their socioeconomic status.

The rate of serious overuse injuries in athletes who come from families that can afford private insurance, researchers at Loyola University Medical Center found, is 68 percent higher than the rate in lower-income athletes who are on public insurance (Medicaid).

Not surprisingly, they also found that privately-insured young athletes are twice as likely as publicly-insured athletes to be highly specialized in one sport. The link between sports specialization and overuse injuries had been previously reported, but until now the link had not been based on socioeconomic status.

"Intense specialization in one sport can cost thousands of dollars a year in equipment, fees, transportation, private lessons, etc.," said Loyola's Neeru Jayanthi, MD, in presenting his findings in Monaco. "Having the financial resources to afford such costs may provide increased opportunities for young athletes to participate in a single sport."

Paying a price 

But there may be a different price to pay, added Lara Dugas, PhD, MPH, co-investigator on the study. "Young athletes with this type of training appear to be at greater risk for serious overuse injuries than those who have fewer financial resources," Dugas said. On the other hand, an April 2014 paper by researchers at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago  

1. Sagas M. What does the science say about athletic development in children. Research Brief, University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program's Project Play. September 13, 2013 (accessed at http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/At...).

2. Gould D, Carson S. Fun and Games? Myths Surrounding the Role of Youth Sports in Developing Olympic Champions. Youth Studies Australia 2004;23(1):27-34.



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