Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

It's just a game, but sports can have an impact

Jean Côté’s research on the risks of youth sport specialization has informed new guidelines developed by NBA and USA Basketball.

Queen’s professor Jean Côté’s research on the risks of sport specialization among young people has gained traction among several major American and International sports organizations.

The NBA and USA Basketball Youth Basketball Working Group used Dr. Côté’s research when developing the first-ever youth basketball guidelines. Dr. Côté also contributed, in the last few years, to new reports from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), the English Football Association (FA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Youth Sports of the Americas on youth participation, injury risk, and optimizing performance.

“The medical profession is starting to study the impact sports have on youth and they are learning that specializing too early is not the best option,” says Dr. Côté, Professor and Director, Queen’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. “People are paying more attention to the developmental research in sport that we have conducted for the last 15 years and that is proven by the work I’ve been doing with these International organizations.”

Sport is definitely very important, but you also need to develop the person. As long as they are active, youth should be able to choose their own path.
— Jean Côté, Professor and Director, Queen’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies

Dr. Côté’s research focuses on transformational coaching and on the negative effects on youth when they concentrate exclusively on one sport. The findings support the idea that youth should be allowed to play what they want, when they want and winning and losing are an important part of developing youth athletes into responsible and contributing adults.  Youth should also be coached by adults that care for them as people first. 

“Sport is definitely very important, but you also need to develop the person,” he says. “As long as they are active, youth should be able to choose their own path. The most difficult part of this is changing the perspective of coaches and parents. For example, coaches and parents may want young athletes to focus on hockey full time because they have dreams of the National Hockey League. That’s a very negative path to start going down during childhood. Specialization too young definitely has negative consequences.”

Dr. Côté says his recent inclusion on the NBA and USA Basketball working group was a career highlight. He was able to work with a number of experts in injury prevention, sports psychology, and sports physiology. John DiFiori, NBA Director of Sports Medicine, led the group. The main highlight from the new guidelines advise delaying single-sports specialization until at least age 14 and the guidelines also include weekly rest minimums and recommended participation guidelines.

The new report from the NFHS says “burdensome workouts and competition schedules, often coupled with specialization in a single sport, can place unsustainable demands on the scholastic athlete, leading to preventable injuries, burnout and dropout from sport. All students, regardless of skill level or future athletic potential, should be provided the opportunity to learn fundamental skills and play sports under a system of individualized, progressive development that makes the experience enjoyable and rewarding.”

Dr. Côté says he fully supports the message from the report and hopes more organizations will draw from his research. “The main principle of youth sport should be to trigger and maintain youth interest and fun,” he says. “We also want youth to have the experience of winning and losing, being part of a team, and develop their self-esteem by exploring different sports and social groups. Being part of creating these new guidelines is an important step.”