Early Specialization

One rarely talked about tenet of early specialization in sport is the amount of emotional stress it puts on children and the physical ramifications of that stress.

Quite often the emotional impact of early specialization happens because physically the athletes are unable to perform at the required level on a consistent basis. This hits more boys than girls because girls physically and emotionally mature faster than boys - check gymnastics, diving, dance and figure skating. However, even girls are susceptible to many issues from stresses placed upon them.

Sonia Lupien did a study published in 1998 on prolonged levels of high cortisol.

A quick refresher: Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands but regulated by the pituitary gland. We need it to live. It helps us maintain our blood pressure levels, with immunity and with inflammation to name a few things. 

However, too much cortisol for too long of a time, and as Lupien noted, the opposite of the above can happen. It aids in us actually getting high blood pressure, osteoporosis and screws up sleeping patterns. It can aid in us increasing our fat deposits throughout our torso, neck and face.

Lupien also noted that prolonged cortisol resulted: in a shrinking hippocampus (in laboratory rats the hippocampus returned to regular size within a week of the stress being removed), reduction in the production of neurons and an affected memory and mood.

So, folks tell this to the parents who are put this kind of pressure on their young athletes. They're hurting their own kids both mentally and physically and that hurt can have long-term ramifications.

Understand, Lupien's study was performed on 51 individuals who had an average age of 73.That important when dealing with kids because, at 73, the brain is well beyond being fully developed. So, the effects of stress are intense, but there will not be the same the long-term affects developing brain could have.

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