Specialization is a topic that I will write about many times here because I can’t stop wrestling with the battle of theory vs practice. In theory, specialization does not make sense. I will go on record to say that early specialization is the worst thing a parent can do to an athletic child. In practice, avoiding specialization is much harder than one would think. It has long been proven that early specialization is a bad idea for a variety of reasons.
- It hurts skill development in the long-term.
- It creates psychological risks because of stress and expectations.
- It leads to overuse injuries.
- It increases the risk of early burnout.
There are so many arguments for the diversification of sport. You can search specialization and find hundreds of pages on why we should encourage our children to participate in multiple activities.
- It develops athleticism.
- It encourages creativity.
- It promotes healthier muscular development
- It provides opportunity to explore strengths and find passions.
I don’t think there are too many people educated in the sports industry who will encourage early specialization in sports. Since most team sports are considered late specialization sports, it does not seem productive to put a child in that situation. However, most parents are not educated in athlete development. I was sitting on a sideline at a 9U soccer game and listened to a group of parents talking about their daughters. I had to step in when I heard a parent say these girls are getting to the age where they have to focus in on one sport or they will never have a chance. First, no 8-year-old should be told it’s time to pick your sport. How does an 8-year-old even know what they would like to play? Second, have a chance at what? Being a kid and growing up happy?
However, I have been around the business for a long time. If a student has the ability to play 3 sports in high school at the varsity level, they are typically the top athletes in the school, and it is becoming increasingly rare. Participation in three sports divides the season into 4 month intervals taking into account a 12 month schedule. My experience tells me that it is extremely difficult to develop into a top athlete if you are practicing your sport for only 4 months of the year. So how does one become a top-level athlete if they are forced to play multiple sports? Do they continue to train in a sport while playing another? Now your athlete is training for two (sometimes three) sports at a time. This presents issues with over-training, and it makes it extremely difficult for the coaches to train the athlete because the coaches involved are typically not aware of what the other is doing. Training an athlete is more than just going to a few practices. Having too many cooks in the kitchen only leads to disaster.
The System of Youth Sports
The system of youth sports does not lend itself to diversification. 9U travel soccer runs from Nov 1 to July 30. It’s 3 days a week. 9U travel hockey runs from September to March. It’s 4 days a week. Is it fair for a 9-year-old to train 7 days a week? Of course not, but now the athlete must take something off. Who does she disappoint? When hockey ends in March, softball has already begun. Lacrosse kicks in during the spring and summer. My daughter is interested in trying it all because she doesn’t know what she likes yet. At this point she likes it all, and I am encouraging her to find her passion whatever that may be. How do we fit it all in? It is probably easier to specialize. It may be more fair because she won’t be running around 7 days a week for 12 months of the year. Even an 8-year-old needs a break every once in a while.
I pick soccer and hockey for two reasons. First, it is two sports I know well. Second, if you have not started in travel at 9 years old, you may be missing the opportunity to ever develop to the point where your child may get to play on a travel team in those sports. If you are not involved on a travel team, it is extremely difficult to play in high school. It’s not impossible, but house hockey and house soccer does not provide much opportunity for development because of the lack of time in practice and the lack of coaching. Take a look around your local youth organizations and try to sign a 12-year-old up for a new sport. It is near impossible to get started if you have not started young. Either they will start with young beginners, or they will be so far behind the rest that they will not have much fun. Coaches are making demands at a young age, and the system makes it difficult for parents and athletes to diversify.
I am watching a 9U soccer game, and my daughter is learning footwork. She is learning positioning. She is learning how to take angles to defend properly, forcing the attacker down the line. She is learning how to be patient and protect the ball. She is learning to not panic and just kick it away. She is learning how to move to space and get open. She gets her head up to find teammates to pass the ball up field. All of this she will use in hockey over the winter. She has talked about starting lacrosse, and these themes apply. I am sure hockey will teach her a few things about what to do in soccer, and although she is not touching a soccer ball, she is learning the concepts of the game. She is learning the basic concepts of team sports. Although she is not learning how to shoot a puck when playing soccer, she is learning where to shoot a puck. When she learns passing in hockey, she can bring that skill back to the soccer field. An sometimes undervalued skill, she is learning how to work with a divers group of people in different sports to become a better teammate.
Killing the Game
Specialization is killing the game. However, I also see how the experienced players have the advantage. The ones who practice more have a leg up on the competition. Is my child falling behind because she is not picking one sport? It clearly says in her associations travel contract that travel soccer must be your number one commitment.
If you are 13 and a baseball player, you probably can’t commit to travel soccer. (From the player contract)
So here it is. A player in high school who wants to play high school soccer and high school baseball cannot supplement their training with travel sports because the club system puts them in the same season. We as coaches all know that the high school season is not enough to push a player to the next level. So a 13-year-old must make the determination as to where they will put their time and training. Is this right? What if they pick the wrong one? What happened to the three sport athlete? Is diversification only acceptable until you are 13?
Much of what I wrote is my opinion based on my interest in the topic. I support the Long Term Athlete Development Plan, and I am trying to figure out how to do what is right for my players and my child while giving them the best chance to successfully achieve their goals. I would love to hear your opinion on this.