When Does Sport Specialization Make Sense?
It’s an accepted fact that Youth Sports Specialization can lead to burn out, over-use injuries, and potentially the lack of development of the “complete athlete.” So, knowing this, why am I allowing my child to specialize in one sport?
Youth Sports Specialization is a real problem in our sports culture. We hear statistics about the alarming rate of children dropping out of sports around the age of 13, the unsettling number of young children undergoing orthopedic surgeries and, in support of multiple sport participation, we hear about current professional athletes and their multiple high school sports’ participation (often football being one of the sports because, seriously, who wants to play football year round?).
I often read these stories and have to remind myself, before I start feeling stressed and a bit guilty, that these anecdotes, albeit noteworthy, do not mean Sport Specialization is absolutely and always inappropriate for all youth athletes.
4 Factors to Evaluate when Discussing Youth Sport Specialization:
No soccer club should EVER demand that U-12 and younger players commit year-round to their club and not permit them to play other sports. No training environment for a U-12 and younger child should be so demanding that they couldn’t, even if it were as an exception, play another sport. (My age is a bit arbitrary here – but is aligned with the new US Soccer standards for 11 aside games beginning at the U-13 age. Prior to U-13, teams are smaller and clubs often pool the kids. This should allow for easier multi-sport participation.)
That being said, I do think clubs should offer year round opportunities for training and development for younger players – SHOULD THEY CHOOSE. Some kids just don’t want to play another sport. Along those lines, if your child loved to play the violin would you force them to also play the piano? Of course not. I do think, though, that year-round training should not be mandatory for these younger players and that the Long Term Athletic Development of the individual must be considered when formulating the year round opportunity.
One caveat – if your child is playing multiple sports in the same season and regularly missing practices or games in one or both of the sports – I can see that the club may have an issue with this!
Age & The Coaching Trap & The Parent Trap
Parents of children with real athletic potential need to understand coaches of all sports will be competing for their child. I know, that sounds crass and even unethical in some way – but it’s true.
If you are a parent of a child with real athletic potential, you must not fall into either of these traps:
The Coaching Trap:
Your child has real talent in this sport. I know they are only 8, but if they commit to participating year round and focus on their skill development at these young years, they have the potential to be a ….
If your child is a naturally gifted athlete – their long-term potential will most likely be enhanced and developed through multiple-sport participation.
The Parent Trap:
My child will fall behind if they don’t commit completely to this one sport NOW.
Let your children lead the way here. If they want some downtime or to play other sports or participate in other activities – allow them to!
Given today’s youth sports-crazed society, it’s important to have a reality check:
If your child is U-12 or under and has the potential and develops the mentality – there is NO WAY their future in a single sport is going to be hampered because they participated in multiple sports. Their path to the top team may be a bit longer or more circuitous, but it won’t be cut short. If they want to acquire skills they didn’t acquire because they were playing a second sport – they can do so. They may have to work harder for a couple of years, but they can do it.
When Specialization Becomes Appropriate
I think at some point – AT THE HIGHEST OF LEVELS – SOMEWHERE AROUND THE AGE OF 13, our children need to make a commitment to one sport. Teams just can’t have it both ways.
We can’t allow our 13 year old and older children play multiple sports and expect them to be able to compete at the highest level against kids that train year round.
The highest level means different things in different parts of our vast country. In some regions, the children playing at the highest level may only train 2 times a week for 7 months out of the year. The highest level as it relates to the Sport Specialization discussion is applicable when discussing regions where the competition is participating in year round training.
Also, are there outliers? For sure! Is it possible to decide to play multiple sports through your high school years and end up playing Division I soccer in college? Absolutely!
In my eyes, one of the greatest things that I see happening as a result of the expansion and growth of the ECNL, the Development Academy, and other top, nationally based leagues across our country is that, more and more, players are participating at developmentally appropriate levels.
For the most part, those kids at the very top of the table in terms of athleticism and skill and potential and mentality – are now able to play together and are most often being asked to specialize. These are athletes who are old enough to make a decision to focus on one sport and who are playing at the highest levels available, so we can assume they have a lot of potential. For them, specialization – especially in such a skill driven sport as soccer, makes most sense.
I am describing potential as having the natural athletic abilities necessary to play at a high level. Athletic potential is something that can be nurtured, but, unlike skill, it can’t always be improved through training.
The only kids that should be participating in year round training for a single sport are: 1. Those that have the potential to continue playing into college and beyond, and 2. Those that choose to do so because they genuinely don’t want to play another sport.
The group of athletes that aren’t specializing will make up our 2015 version of the multiple-sport high school athlete as we remember them. Why take away this group’s opportunity to participate and lead in many different sports by having them specialize?
Specialization is not for everyone.
If your child is full of potential and playing at the highest level and is required to specialize and they don’t have the mentality to do so – it’s important you remember that the specialization path is not for everyone.
If your child is not getting a ton of playing time and you feel as though they don’t have the mentality, and possibly the potential, necessary to improve – it’s important you remember that the specialization path is not for everyone
Stepping back and playing at a lower level and therefore opening the door for playing multiple sports may be the ideal solution if your child doesn’t have the mentality to specialize or if your child is “on the bubble” when it comes to talent and potential for playing at the highest level.
Just because your child is 13 or older does not mean that year round participation is okay. If coaches are asking players to specialize, the coaches MUST take responsibility from a long term athletic development and injury prevention standpoint and design their year-round training program based on the individual players’ needs to include adequate time for recovery. This is called Periodization.
Dr. John Cone, SoccerParenting.com expert contributor, in the article Periodization – An Explanation for Parents defines periodization as:“Generally speaking, Periodization is the structured planning for long-term player development, injury prevention, and performance by optimizing each training and competition opportunity. Ultimately the goal is to be able to address the individual within the team.“
Individual player monitoring, whether it be as technical as that being offered by companies such as Dr. Cone’s , or simply a strong communication link between the player, coach and parent, must be a tool used by coaches who are working with our specializing athletes.
If your child’s coach is 1. Not adequately concerned about individual issues that affect development and performance and can lead to injury such as growth spurts, muscle soreness or lack of sleep (among many others) or 2. If they are not providing adequate time for recovery – SPEAK UP!
Specialization without periodization is absolutely not acceptable.
The next time I hear about that fact that 224 of the 256 players selected in this year’s NLF draft were multiple sport athletes in high school I’ll remind myself that just because my (14 year old) daughter is specializing in soccer doesn’t mean I’m causing her irreparable harm.
Specialization, like for my child, can be appropriate for some children 13 years old or older IF their coaches have implemented a player monitoring system and including training that focuses on their long term athletic development.