There’s an alarming trend rising in youth sports and it’s starting to scare the hell out of me… Children as young as 7 years old are being pushed/encouraged to either play or train for a single sport up to 6 days a week.
This is called ‘sport specialization’ and it’s a super hot topic in the youth sports community. Some parents and coaches believe this is a must if their child wants to have any chance of playing at a high level in the future, others disagree and argue that it hurts the overall development of the child.
But before we get into the pro’s and con’s of sport specialization, let’s make sure we begin this article on the same page by defining exactly what ‘sport specialization’ is…
Sport specialization is the year round participation and dedication to a chosen sport, at the exclusion of all other organized sports.
Pretty simple. An athlete (or their parents…) picks a sport and dedicates all their athletic development time to training and playing only that sport. Nothing else.
Trust me, it happens more than you think.
Arguments For Specialization
In my opinion there is only one decent argument for specializing at a young age, and, if we’re honest, it’s a darn good one.
1. The more you train, the better you get
Providing you’re working on the right things when you’re training, that’s an absolute fact that no one can argue. There is a clear correlation between time spent practicing and skill attained.
The only problem is that while you definitely improve with more training, there are negative consequences to training and playing a single sport.
Arguments Against Specialization
1. Who picked the sport?
Was it really the athlete that picked the sport? Or are they only playing it because it’s the only sport they’ve been around to experience in their young lives?
Athletes will benefit from experiencing a variety of sports so that they can truly pick the one that they enjoy the most. Don’t assume that because dad played basketball at college it’s what the son wants to do. Let them explore.
Player burnout happens all too often. I’ll admit I even experienced it in my playing days. Becoming a good player isn’t easy. It takes time consuming, repetitive execution of the fundamentals… not always drills kids love to do. Forcing this repetitive work on a young athlete can quickly lead to them resenting the sport and eventually giving up altogether.
3. Overuse Injuries
Evidence shows there’s an increased risk of overuse injuries for players that only play one sport. Playing two sports can work on different muscles you may not normally use.
4. Wider Social Group
Sport is a fantastic way to develop social skills. Children that play two sports have the benefit of interacting and making friends with more children. This is especially important for basketball players as there are usually only 10 – 12 other players on the team.
5. Experience Different Coaching
Multi-sport athletes also have the benefit of playing and learning from another coach. This gives them another role model in their life to look up to. Not to mention you’ll have double the chance of getting a great coach that puts the process of getting better ahead of results at a young age.
The Answer You Weren’t Expecting
We’ve just went over the main pro’s and con’s of sport specialization and ended up with one positive and five negatives… so this should be the time when I tell you that your child should always be a multi-sport athlete, right?
Wrong… but maybe right.
Your child does need to specialize at some point… possibly.
Let me explain…
As you can see from the pro’s and con’s above, if we truly have the child’s best interest and wellbeing at heart, we will encourage them to participate in more than one sport. Don’t make them pick. It will improve their overall health, assist them to develop better social skills, decrease risk of injury, and a number of other factors.
But if they do want to go on to play at a higher level and maybe even professionally, it’s highly advised for most athletes that they do specialize (at some point) in a single sport because it’s important to get in as much training time as possible to give them the best chance of success.
So we need to find the middle point at which they get the benefit from playing two sports, minimize the negatives, and maximize their chances of going on to play at a high level.
Let’s Change the Question
Instead of “Should youth athletes specialize in basketball?”, the real question should be…
At what age should athletes specialize in one sport?
Because let’s face it. With the amount of highly skilled and talented athletes around nowadays, players do need to specialize at some point (unless you’re Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, or Deion Sanders) if they have dreams of playing at the next level and to increase their chances of receiving a scholarship.
What Age Should Athletes Specialize?
Right from the get go I’ll give you an age because I know that’s what you’re all after…
13 years of age.
Remembering that this whole article is only my opinion, I believe athletes should start deciding whether they want to become a single-sport athlete at the age of 13 on a few conditions conditions:
1. They want to exclusively pursue one sport
If they’re enjoying playing two and don’t have a burning desire to pursue one over the other, let them do both. Don’t force them to specialize.
2. They understand it’s a tough road ahead
It’s important that the parents and coach sit down with the athlete and explain to them what it will take if they choose to start being ‘serious’ about their chosen sport.
The Main Reasons Why Athletes Specialize Too Young
When I try and explain my reasoning behind players not specializing until the age of 13 or more, I’m often met with puzzled looks.
A lot of parents, coaches, and players just can’t understand that players aren’t put at a disadvantage by not specializing until a later age.
Here are the most frequent reasons I’ve been told in discussions about why they believe athletes should specialize at a young age.
1. The coach told us we should – There are many coaches out there that advise parents and players to focus on one sport regardless of how young they are.
2. It’s the only way they’ll have a chance – Some parents are concerned that if their child doesn’t specialize then those children that do will become far better players than their child because of all the extra training.
3. It’s pointless learning a sport they’re going to quit – Why would I waste my child’s time learning a sport that he’s going to quit in a few years.
More and more I’m seeing parents force their kids to become single-sport athletes because of the reasons above.
There are Exceptions to the Rule
After reading back through the article and talking to some close friends on the topic, I realized there will always be reasons against being a multi-sport athlete.
If you’re one of the parents with a completely valid reason as to why your child only plays one sport, to save you from tearing me to shreds in the comments, I’ll name some of the most common exceptions below.
1. Tight Budget – Some families simply can’t afford for their children to play more than one sport.
2. Child only want to play one sport – The same as we shouldn’t force players to be multi-sport athletes, we also shouldn’t force them to be single-sport athletes either. If they hate playing and training for other sports, don’t force them to do it.
3. Needs more time to study – Playing two sports is a big commitment. With training several nights a week and also games, it starts to add up. If this leaves little time for study and the player is falling behind with their grades it’s time to focus on what’s most important – their education.
So what’s the end result?
All children should participate in multiple sports during their younger years, and then, as long as they want to, specialize in a single sport at around the age of 13.
To name a few reasons, I feel at this age the child knows which sport they’re most passionate about, they’ve received the benefit of playing two sports, they will know if they’re willing to dedicate the time and energy to one sport, and they have a fair idea of what they’re getting themselves into.
For those parents and coaches that are still hesitant about allowing their child or player to be a multi-sport athlete because it will diminish their chances of playing professionally or receiving a scholarship… You’re probably right.
You have a better chance at playing professionally and receiving a scholarship if you do specialize at a younger age.
But at what cost?
The chance of high school players going on to play professionally are very, very slim. So if they don’t make it, what have they given up in their pursuit of becoming a professional athlete?
We have to weigh the risk vs the reward.
It’s imperative that we keep our focus on the most important aspect of youth sports: the health, wellbeing, and overall development of our athletes.