Specialization in Youth Sports


There is an alarming trend taking place in youth sports, and the scariest thing is that, from the surface, it seems harmless. More and more young people have decided to go the route of specialization, choosing to tie themselves to only one sport from an early age rather than learn and enjoy a variety of athletic ventures.

Why Parents Keep Their Kids in One Sport

The reasons for specialization typically have good intentions behind them, at least from the parent’s point of view. There is an intense desire often times to put children in one sport year round so they can “master” that sport. The idea is that this will grant greater potential for college scholarships down the road if a child gets really good at a sport.

Occasionally a parent may specialize their kid for selfish reasons. They’ll look to live out their own unfulfilled athletic aspirations through their kid, pushing them beyond their desire and ability into private coaching and year round practice and tournaments. Maybe they see their friends putting their kids in a grueling, year-round sport and feel pressured to do the same.

Another reason parents do it is because coaches pressure them to. They see your son/daughter as an elite talent, and selfishly want to harness their athletic prowess for their own desires, not for some other coach to use.

Why Else is Specialization a Bad Thing?

1) Injury risk. It really depends on who you ask, but the thinking from many youth sports’ experts is that specialization, especially at an early age, has more negative effects in the long-term that it does positive ones. We’ve discussed the fact that mental burn out happens much more easily with specialization, but what about physical injury? A recent study by the Loyola University Health System in Illinois has found that kids who specialize in sports increase their chances of injury. Of 85 young athletes with injuries that participated in the study, over 60% participated in only one sport. Many of these athletes spend an average of 11 hours a week training and playing their sport.

2) Burnout makes kids want to quit. If a young athlete is frequently injured or gets burned out, the chances are greater that they’ll want to quit sports. This leads the greater inactivity as an adult which has the opportunity to then lead to health issues down the road. Your effort to give your child a great future via specialization may do the complete opposite.

3) The sport is no longer fun. When you commit your child to only one sport and play it year-round, the enjoyment of it may slip away. When they feel like sports is less a fun game and more of a job, they lose interest and are no longer intrinsically motivated.

4) Possibly prevents the best development for the athlete. Playing multiple sports increases motor skill training which develops a stronger baseline of athletic skills.

The Benefits of Multiple Sports

Many of the great athletes we’ve seen played multiple sports in school. The reason for this was because it gave them cross-training they otherwise would not get if they stayed in just one sport. To give a recent example, look at this chart from the 2015 NFL draft. You’ll notice that 224 of the 256 players drafted (close to 90%) played more than one sport in high school.

 (Chart source: trackingfootball.com)

The ultimate goal for you may not be to get your child drafted into the NFL, but it proves a point that multi-sport athletes are often more successful because they’re more well-rounded. “The advice I always give to kids is play as many sports as you can for as long as you can.” says New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Playing multiple sports helps in the social and psychological development of young people as well. Playing different sports in different situations with different people provides a great laboratory for young people to practice decision-making, emotional control, and social maturity, which are all things that will be beneficial both in their preferred sport and in their lives away from sports.

Is It Ever Okay to Specialize?

There is something to be said for an athlete to focus solely on one sport at an appropriate age. Sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas suggest the following guidelines in determining when children should specialize in one sport. They suggest that prior to age 12, 80% of time spent should be in sports other than their chosen sport. Between the ages of 13-15, time should be split 50/50 between their chosen sport and other sports. At age 16, 20% of time spent should be in other sports.

In the pursuit of excellence in youth sports, there are different avenues you may choose to go as a parent. Always consider what’s best for the long-term for your child, but along with that you must remember to ask “what will give my child the most enjoyment in their lives?” Your goal is not to go get your child a college scholarship; it is to give them a good life where they have the opportunity to grow and learn new things that prepare them to be people of integrity on and off the field. Please think about that when weighing the big decision of placing your child into the world of sport specialization.