Are Kids Specializing in Youth Sports Too Early?

What Happened to All the 3-Sport Athletes?

These days, many parents (and their children) are feeling pressure to specialize in a particular sport earlier and earlier.

The pressure can come from coaches, parents, trainers, kids, or the media. A billion-dollar industry has emerged to meet this growing trend

In some cases, a child's first taste of athletic success (at age 5) will send a parent on two wheels to Dick's Sporting Goods. The sales associate sees this parent from a mile away. Hello daily sales quota!

I know it's flattering when the volunteer coach tells you that Ricky or Samantha has a "big league swing". You wonder, "Could it be? Could my son/daughter be that special athlete? Could I be the next Archie Manning?"

But before quitting soccer and dance and buying Ricky a $299 T-ball bat or Samantha a $199 softball glove, consider whether specializing so early is in their best interests?

This blog post makes the case for a slower transition to specialization - or no specialization at all. 

It examines the many benefits of the old-school "multi-sport athlete" and why it may make sense to bring this old sensibility back.

Better for Young Bodies

A multi-sport athlete's body tends to have fewer injuries and enjoy more long-term durability.  Coordination and gross motor skills advance quickly due to the regular use of different muscle groups and body movements.

Imagine the differences in physical demands of a middle-distance swimmer versus a catcher in baseball. A young athlete's body thrives with this variance of challenge and stress.

Better for Young Brains

Not all sports require the same mental intensity, focus, and rhythm.

A soccer midfielder's brain must be focused for long periods of time. A 50-yard backstroker has to concentrate for 24 seconds. A baseball batter has 0.3 seconds to decide to swing or not. A cross-country runner must manage 20 minutes of increasing exhaustion and leg fatigue.

Over time, the brains of multi-sport athletes become more developed, adaptive, and efficient. Their brains have to process in new and different ways depending on the sport, season, and demands.

With these changes, the likelihood of mental and physical burnout is reduced as well. The athlete looks forward to the change of pace, a different group of friends, and a new workout routine.

More Friendships

Different sports attract different people. By playing multiple sports, young athletes are introduced to a wide range of potential friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. A single-sport athlete might interact with the same 12-15 teammates for 10 years in a row.

More Relationships

Multi-sport athletes are similarly exposed to a diverse set of coaches, assistant coaches, referees, umpires, line judges, mentors, parents, etc. Each of these adults has their own leadership style, attitude, perspective, and world view.  Athletes benefit from this diversity in many ways. A 60-year old legendary basketball coach will likely have a different coaching/mentoring style than a 26-year old tennis pro. 

Diversification of Skills

Multi-sport athletes are constantly learning and honing new skills as they transition from season to season and sport to sport. Consider the difference between a water polo player who must master the egg-beater kick and a basketball player who must master the finger roll. These are wildly different skills that require unique strengths, athleticism, and timing.

Less Pressure to Be the Best

Multi-sport athletes often enjoy a more relaxed competitive environment. After all, since sport X is not their main sport, there is less pressure to be "the best". In fact, there is a lot of upside when a multi-sport athlete excels in a particular sport because expectations are lower. In today's competitive environment, this may make participation in a sport more fun for the multi-sport athlete.

Different Roles

Multi-sport athletes can take on different roles in different sports. During the basketball season, an athlete may need to score points. During the lacrosse season, the same athlete may be called on to lead the defensive effort. One sport may require grit while another demands a cerebral approach. This diversity of roles and responsibilities adds to an athlete's toolbox for life. 

Different Environments

What do a swimming pool, golf course, lacrosse field, basketball court, and tennis court all have in common?  Well, nothing - and that's the point. These playing surfaces and environments are wildly different. Athletes who can transition among these sports with aplomb have demonstrated tremendous flexibility and adaptability to different surroundings. This is an invaluable life skill.

Multi-Sports = Multi-Options

For multi-sport athletes, it's possible (if not likely) to specialize in one sport later on in high school if it makes sense. Dropping down from three sports to one sport would be an easy transition and open up a lot of time to re-focus on the single sport.

For single-sport athletes, however, there's little chance to branch off into other sports once they start high school. The window has likely closed and they would not be able to catch up. They are stuck with what they specialized in since 3rd grade.

Does Specialization Ever Make Sense?

Yes, there are, of course, many viable reasons to specialize in a particular sport.

  • Some athletes possess limited skills outside their chosen sport
  • Some athletes wouldn't make their high school team if they didn't specialize early
  • Some athletes aspire to play their sport professionally
  • Some athletes want to play their sport in college
  • Some sports are extremely skill and/or labor-intensive
  • Some athletes prefer deeper over wider relationships with teammates
  • Two sports may share the same season
  • Some athletes have limited financial or logistical resources
  • Some coaches disallow their players from participating in other sports

 Is There a "Right Time" to Specialize?

Every athlete, sport, family, and financial situation is unique. As a general rule, unless there are extenuating circumstances, sophomore year of high school would be a good time to consider "specializing" in a sport if you have decided to move in that direction.

This gives athletes one full year (freshman year) to assess what it's like to play at the high school level across different sports. Did they enjoy one sport over another? Did they like the coach? Which team had more friends on it? Which sport did they excel in? What were the practice schedules like? Do they aspire to play a sport in college? Do they have potential to get an athletic scholarship? Can they manage the academic workload?

Summary

There is no "right or wrong" answer.  What works for one athlete may not work for another.  My goal was to highlight the potential benefits of a multi-sport approach in the wake of the sports-specialization craze.

Closing Thoughts

If your child has already specialized in a sport, that's okay. There are certainly many benefits to this strategy.

If your child plays multiple sports now and you are feeling the pressure to pick one (for any number of reasons), please resist making a snap decision.

Before deciding, sit down with your child and have a conversation. For your typical "above-average" athlete, this conversation should happen in 8th or 9th grade. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How do you like playing [sport A, B, C]?
  • What do you like most about each one?
  • Do you have a favorite?
  • Which one do you have more potential in?
  • Do you think you might want to play one of these sports in college?
  • What do you think about specializing in one sport?
  • What would you miss about the other sports?
  • Would you rather keep playing all 2 or 3 sports?
  • Let's discuss the pros and cons

Tips/Advice

Personally, as a former Div I athlete, it's a challenge to remain objective while guiding my four sons through this process (along with many PrepWellers around the country).

It's tempting to try to influence their decisions based on MY needs, wants, or unrealized dreams. Resist this temptation.

Present the options, the pros and cons, and the potential long-term consequences - and let them decide.

Your Thoughts

Please share your experiences with the community below. Did your child specialize early? How did it turn out? Any regrets? Any advice?

Please share this blog post with others who may be facing this scenario.

Keep Prepping,

Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneur, Shark Tank

Phil Back developed PrepWell Academy to help high school students (and their parents) navigate the college admission process.

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