landauSpecialization in Sports

Are kids specializing in sports too early?

Are we setting our kids up for injury and burnout in the sport they are passionate about?

How young is too young?

Over the past several decades, youth sports and opportunities have dramatically shifted, with more and more kids specializing in sports starting at a very young age. According to a 2008 study by the National Council of Youth Sports, over 60 million children age 6-18 are involved in organized sports in the United States (from 20 million in 1995). Twenty-seven percent of these kids are specializing in one sport, and 70 percent are dropping out of sports by the age of 13.

How can we account for such a rapid increase in specialization, as well as a high dropout rate?

Many sports psychologists attribute this to the differences between the goals of coaches and parents from those of the kids who are competing. Some parents and athletes are aspiring to compete at the college level and see sport as a “ticket” through the admissions process, while others are looking beyond college in hopes to compete at the professional level. While it can be beneficial to have hopes and dreams of competing at the collegiate level or beyond, the reality is that most do not make it past the high school level; competition is fierce. Which brings me back to the original question, are our children specializing too early?

How do we keep up with the competition to even have a chance of competing at the higher levels if we do not start our children specializing at the youngest possible age?

This is the balancing act that many parents face today. In fact, it is even impacting middle school and high school sports because of so many kids choosing to play on outside club sports teams over school sports. Many believe that the club team level may give them the extra advantage, the expert coaches, the extra coaching and games, the year-round opportunity to compete and so on.

Recently, while attending my son’s hockey parent meeting, I was presently surprised at the coach’s remarks, as he listed his priorities for himself and for each boy on the team:

  1. Family
  2. School
  3. Team

My wife and I looked, smiled and nodded at one another, recognizing that our son was in good hands and that this might be outside the norm that is culturally going on in many youth and club level organizations. The priorities seemed right to us, but we also knew the coach’s background and that he had demonstrated success and experience as a hockey coach.

What we also heard him say was, “All roads lead to recreational men’s league hockey,” meaning that some kids will excel and play at a very high level, maybe college or higher, and for others, pee wee hockey is as far as the journey will go. No matter what the path, all these kids, if they love hockey and stick with it, will at some point all be playing in a recreational hockey league as adults. We cannot completely anticipate what the journey will look like for our child. We can only do our best to encourage participation, safety, balance, and a true love for the game.

It is my belief that the love of the game is the single most important piece in an athlete’s attitude and desire to continue their own journey with the sport. Allowing the child to steer and lead is also vitally important. Statistics show us that specializing too soon leads to burnout and potential injury. We also know that experts encourage kids to play multiple sports for as long as they can. There is incredible value in developing the athlete and not just the specific skills for one sport. Many college coaches encourage high school students to play more than one sport. It increases sports skills, and athletic movements transfer. The broader the exposure to multiple sports and movements, the better. Skills such as grit, focus, resiliency, teamwork, and just the pure “will to compete” are all transferable from sport to sport. They even cross into other aspects of the student-athlete’s life; such as in the classroom, problem-solving, managing relationships, and other outside activities. The balance resulting in incorporating multiple sports keeps young athletes vigilant, and more engaged, with less chance of burnout. Acquiring and nurturing these characteristics while building character in our children is the true purpose of youth sports, which will serve them well throughout their lives.