Specialization in Youth Sports

by Laura B.

“My 10 year old daughter’s soccer coach told her she had to pick one sport, and start doing additional private training on the side, or he would give away her spot on the team.”

This quote from the article “The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports” really upsets me. That is a huge amount of unnecessary pressure put on a child from the coach by telling her she isn’t good enough and has to start trying now if she wants any shot. I only hope that the parents realized that that early specialization is not healthy for the long term athlete development for their child.

Parents today are being told they should specialize their children early if they want any chance in making it as a college athlete. Parents are trying to give their children all these opportunities to succeed at a sport that they may never have had. Parents believe that they are helping them succeed in sports, by dragging their kid rink-to-rink. Somewhere parents lose sight of what is really important and that is whether the children are actually enjoying playing. By premature specializing of youth in sports it can cause harm to their athlete development by promoting one-side development and increase the likelihood of injury or burnout (“LTAD Stages,” n.d.).

As a ten-year-old girl,she should still be learning general sports skills that can be transferred to other activities. For example, the coaches of a 10 year old girl playing softball and soccer should be emphasizing putting your body in front of the ball to stop it. It is a general skill that she can transfer while she is trying several activities. Additional private training is not something coaches should be encouraging at this age

Coaches need to not just think of their one-season goals for the youth, coaches are incredibly influential on youth and how they perceive sports. If the coach is yelling all the time, and punishing their players verbally or physically on the ice, children are not going to enjoy their experience. They can end up fearing the coach and think all coaches will act that way and not want to rejoin the sport the following year.

College coaches are actually looking for multi-sport athletes. It shows coaches that the athlete is well rounded. With their variety of athleticism they probably didn’t reach their full potential in a single sport because they have yet to specialize. Athletes that have specialized already will more likely burnout quicker then the athletes that have not specialized yet. This does not mean parents should sign their youth up for every sport possible.

It means parents need to allow their children to participate in sports and activities which bring the most enjoyment to their youth. When youth do get a break from one sport by getting to play another, it is those kids that are running into the rink or the field just bouncing to get back.

After reading these articles and looking at the Long Term Athlete Development model, it reconfirms my thoughts of how youth should not be specializing in sports too soon. Athletes need to grow and develop until they are at the mature level to specialize; for most athletes that is not until late high school or university. Parents and coaches need to realize this and not be telling a 10 year old to specialize. They should want the athlete to be active for life, not just for that season.

References

The Race to Nowhere In Youth Sports. (2014, October 20). Retrieved November 10, 2014, from http://stevenashyb.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/the-race-to-nowhere-in-youth-sports/

LTAD Stages. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://canadiansportforlife.ca/learn-about-canadian-sport-life/ltad-stages

Why College Coaches Prefer Multi-Sport Athletes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2014, from http://www.laxmagazine.com/high_school/recruiting/2013-14/news/090214_why_college_lacrosse_coaches_prefer_multi-sport_athletes

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7 Responses to Specialization in Youth Sports

  1. gregsteele17 says:

    Specialization in Youth Sports- comment:

    Laura this is a great topic and feel the same about youth and the pressure by coaches and parents to specialize in one sport. Long Term Athletic Development model tries to promote sports as more inclusive, integrated and high quality with a place for the development of higher performance athletes within the system (LTAD). However, the model believes in gaining a good skill base before progressing into specialization. Specialization is not for all youth and they should not be forced into having to make that decision at early ages by coaches and parents. It is too bad that parents feel the social pressure and fear to expose children to this unhealthy approach to sports. Playing sports is meant to be fun and enjoyable and this should be what is the most important thing.

    Youth specializing at a young age run a higher risk of injury and burn out (Chapin , 2014). Professional coaches look for athletes that are multi-skilled and can adapt to situations . They don’t look for only a person being good at one particular skill. Positive youth development needs to meet the physical, emotional and mental needs of youth and specializing extensively in one sport often does not support these necessary needs. by Greg S

  2. erikaermen says:

    Great point Laura!
    I think that we have been seeing a lot of specialization in sport ever since we were kids. I remember my parents being very open about what sports I wanted to try, but ever since I was 7 years old I have been playing soccer. There is a slight difference since I was able to participate in other sports, but I do still believe to this day that “my sport” was and will always be soccer.
    When I attended the Physical Literacy conference this was a big aspect of becoming physically literate, which involves not specializing children in a certain sport at an early age. Most of the time these children get used to doing certain movements that pertain to their specific sport and are thought to be well rounded athletes, but tend to get hurt playing a sport that is not their specialization. We see more and more girls getting bad knee injuries and, as disused at the conference, this is linked with girls being so used to doing lower level impact training than boys and also girls having the tendency to playing one or two sports all year round. Therefore, these girls to not have full range in their hips and knees and injuries arise.
    As I keep learning about early specialization it is apparent that parents tend to think that either having their child play one sport at an elite level or having their child play an abundance of sport are the only two extremes that will benefit their child. Researchers have found that it is better for children to participate in more than one sport so they are able to enhance their physical vocabulary and in hand will get less injuries. There would also be an argument here for children that have a very demanding schedule when thinking of all their sports, school and free play; but this is another topic.

  3. haileyrendell says:

    Nice job Laura, I agree with everything you have said here. Looking back, one of the best things my parents did for me was not pushing me to specialize. When I tried out for the U12 Tier 1 soccer team and the coach looked at us all and said none of us were good enough to compete at a Tier 1 level and suggested we get personal trainers and private coaching and to try again next year I will never forget how I felt or the look of disgust on my dad’s face. This is just a reality of what youth today have to deal with everyday now, and the pressure is coming from their parents.
    In reading most of these articles there seems to be one common trend. Parent’s are the problem, but yet when they get older who is it that will be blamed for being lazy or unmotivated? I’m guessing the kids. If the youth are constantly being told what they have to do, how do they make choices for themselves?
    The other issue with early specialization is injury. This injury is going to come from not learning how to use all parts of your body in different ways and therefore compensating or not being physical literate. But what about the constant repetition that comes from sports? I decided that my sport was going to be volleyball when I was entering highschool. The repetition from the motion of hitting has destroyed my shoulder. I have been to physio many times, but nothing seems to make it completely better. If youth are specializing early, this just means this will happen earlier and be worse. If I had played soccer 3 nights a week rather than just playing volleyball maybe this wouldn’t have happened because it would have gotten a rest.
    Another problem I can see with specialization is there is so much focus on being the best so the children can one day play collage sports. But what happens if they go through all of that and then don’t make it? They would have dedicated their entire youth to something and then didn’t succeed. That feeling would be absolutely crushing and who knows what it would do to their self esteem.
    Parents need to take a step back from the crazy things they are pushing their kids into and think back to their own childhood and try and remember what it was like to just have fun. There is nothing memorable of going to the same practice every night of the week or spending free time working. Let the youth play sports, but let them make the decisions.

  4. kimeagher says:

    Yes! Parents and coaches, what are you doing to the poor youth that you have the responsibility to nurture and develop!? Would you tell your 8-year-old that they better decide what career they want to pursue so they can stop worrying about any academic courses that are irrelevant to their career? No, or at least I certainly hope you would not. Even for adolescents going into grade nine their future career paths are unclear and adults should be advising them to keep their options open, as my parents did. In sport that’s exactly what we as adults should be doing, encouraging youth to keep their options open. Raising a child to understand physical fitness as an important aspect of living a healthy and full life is as essential as the same child understanding the importance of an education whether it be a high school diploma (physical literacy) or a post secondary degree (playing soccer or hockey for team Canada).
    An article by John Nyland clearly underlines the risk-reward relationship of early specialization, a young athlete might achieve competitive and professional success or they might be plagued by injury and restricted physical development for the rest of their lives.2 Of course they are your children, they are yours to gamble with.
    Before you start weighing out the pros and cons I’ll share a little more information with you that might provide some security in your decision. Memmert, Baker and Bertsch conducted a study looking at the benefit of being a creative athlete in team ball based sports and who the creative players were and what their athletic background was.1 First off, creativity as an athlete can give you an upper hand, especially in a sport where your success can be determined by your ability to maneuver around defenders and make plays for a goals. Secondly, it was discovered that the players who were the most creative had a variety of sporting background that included other competitive sports, recreational sports, and free-play. In short the best players in the study were those who had diverse athletic background and decided to specialize later on in their athletic career.1 Going back to the career/education analogy, I have found that the more life experience a person can bring to the table, whether it be for a job or a class or a single assignment, the people who have seen, heard, read, and experienced more have the ability to see many possibilities and approaches to problems and tasks that those with out do not.
    So Parents, coaches, teachers, whom ever you are that has the fate of our precious future in their hands, stop and consider the long game. Do the actions you take increase the chance of these children having a full and bright future with unlimited possibilities or are you forcing them down a narrow road with two possible outcomes and little else to look forward to?

    References:
    1. Memmert D, Baker J, Bertsch C. Play and practice in the development of sport-specific creativity in team ball sports. High Ability Studies. 2010 06;21(1):3-18.
    2. NYLAND J. Coming to terms with early sports specialization and athletic injuries. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2014 06;44(6):389-90.

  5. mfergunb says:

    Well written Bray.

    As a coach myself, I too look for multi-sport athletes, as these individuals not only show mastery of most fundamental skills, but also show dedication, commitment and passion in and out of sport. When young athletes avoid specialization early on, I think that this also develops more meaningful social characteristics from having experiences from different team atmospheres. That being said, I also think parents should be aware of the dangers of over-structured lifestyles for children; therefor, there should be a balance between too little and too much (specializing versus too many sports).

    I have worked with youth in sport for a while now; either coordinating or coaching camps, teams or programs for children of all ages. I often see is the desire from parents or other program organizers to offer sport-specific programs for youth at a very early age (sometimes as early as 3 years old). While I am a firm believer in getting children active/involved in sport right away, they need to be exposed to multiple options rather than a single sport in order to develop knowledge, preference and experience. Children need these various options to develop well-rounded fundamental skills, and then have the experiences to choose which activity they enjoy the most. As you concluded in your post, children should be encouraged to be active for life, not just for one season!

    – Meagan F.

  6. draywells says:

    Awesome topic Laura,
    It is crazy how some parents already plan out what their child is going to do in the future of sport before they are fully grown yet and sometimes parents even have it planned before they are even born. I agree children should not only have to specialize in one certain sport just because they want to get super good at that sport. We should be promoting any time of physical activity as long as they enjoy doing it. Coaches need to be respectful of athlete’s decisions because other sports could sometimes actually help them out with that particular sport. I know when I use to train my coach use to get so mad at the girls that would be in soccer as well because sometimes they needed to miss our gymnastics practice for a game. Which I don’t really understand why she would get so mad since soccer would be training cardiovascular fitness which would help with gymnastics anyway. But I found it interesting that college coaches are looking for more multi-sport athletes that is interesting to know that they would be looking for an individual that likes to do all kinds of sports.
    Desiray, W

  7. codyb06 says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. Early specialization is one of many negative aspects that a parent can force upon their child. This can lead to many negative consequences for example how you mentioned about burn out rates. We need to be focusing on fundamental movement skills so that our youth can excel in multiple sports and gain the many benefits associated with participating in these sports. With the percentage of youth that actually make it to higher level competition (university or pro) are extremely low. The fact that early specialization is bad for youths development coupled with this fact about the percent of youth that actually make it to the “pros” should be enough for these parents to stop what they are doing but unfortunately many of them will still believe they are doing what is best for the child. “My 10 year old daughter’s soccer coach told her she had to pick one sport, and start doing additional private training on the side, or he would give away her spot on the team” this comment infuriates me to no end. It shows complete ignorance of youth development and should never cross a coaches lips. This “advice” is wrong and unhealthy for the child. More education surrounding this topic should be given to the coaches involved with youth.

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