There’s an interesting, albeit alarming trend in youth sports today. This is the trend for young athletes, some as young as 7 and 8 years old to specialize, year-round in just one sport. The argument in support of this nonsense is that in order for an athlete to have a chance to go as far as possible, he/she needs to commit early to a sport and dedicate themselves year round to training. The fear that is used to hook parents in this argument is that if their child fails to do this, then they will surely lose out to some other athlete who has made the commitment.
Many parents get caught up in this strong gravitational-like force that is often generated by overly competitive coaches who are looking out more for themselves than the kids they’re working with. They see a youngster with tremendous talent and they start hearing the Olympic theme blasting loudly in their heads. They get excited both about how good this kid can become and what it will mean for their reputation as a coach and their won-loss record.
So parents are cautioned that unless 7 year old superstar Johnny plays travel soccer in the Fall season, and then signs up for indoor soccer through the winter, and then Spring and summer soccer, he won’t have a good chance to really develop his skills and make the All-Star team. If he fails to make the All-Star team at the ripe old age of 7, then there’s no question that it will seriously jeopardize his chances of being chosen for the pre-Olympic Development Program. If he fails to be looked at here, then he’ll be “way behind” other kids when he’s old enough to make the elite travel team. This in turn will hurt his chances of actually making the ODP State team in the first age group he’s eligible, never mind being good enough to make the Regional squad. And, if he’s not chosen for the Regional squad, how is he supposed to be asked to come try out for the national team? If this never happens, then how on earth is he supposed to start for his high school varsity and then get a decent chance for a college scholarship?
Here’s the problem with all of this “more is better” insanity: All work and no play makes Jack a very unhappy, drop-out statistic!
When young athletes are forced to specialize too soon, they become more vulnerable to burning out both physically and mentally. If you are playing one sport year round, eventually you will get very tired of it. Your joy and passion for the game will slowly disappear and soon, the sport will become a chore. Furthermore, athletes who play much too much of one sport year round are more likely to sustain over-use injuries. In fact, this is probably one of the main reasons for the alarming rise of season-ending knee injuries in young female athletes.
For many reasons it is important to understand that rest is a critical part of training. Rest does not simply mean taking just a week or two off over the course of a twelve month season. It means having much longer breaks where you allow your body and mind to engage in other physical activities. Cross training in other, totally unrelated sports combats over-use injuries and keeps a sport fun for the athlete. Plus, it relieves some of the pressure that young athletes feel when they just play “their” sport.
So if you’re a parent, encourage your children to play multiple sports for many different coaches year round. If you have a coach who tells you that your 12 and under must play just that one sport year round, please think twice about going along with this. I personally think it’s a big mistake.
Once your child hits 13 to 14 years of age, then it might be time for them to consider specializing. It’s usually around high school age that athletes are faced with a decision to choose a sport if they really want to get as good as possible in it. However, before that you and your child need to resist this pressure to specialize. Keep in mind that this isn’t a race we’re talking about here. More is NOT better! Very often, what is better is MORE FUN, less intensity and more variety.