Specialization in Youth Sports, Good or Bad?
Finishing up our focus on
specialization, another factor that
athletes (and their parents) need to keep in mind is that different
sports can and do bring different circumstances into the mix.
There are sports that tend to have a genuine overlap between
(more so in some than in others) and because of this overlap they do
not require as much specialization. It is almost as if the sports truly
complement each other.Take
football and wrestling as one example. I am sure you can find many good
football players who are also very good wrestlers, especially in the
middle and upper weight classes. In fact, I personally know of two who
were solid football players and became state champions in wrestling.
There are other sports that also tend to have similar
characteristics. If size, speed, agility, jumping ability, coordination
(hand-eye), etc. are high priorities in a sport, then usually these
attributes carry over to another sport that has the same high priority
for these athletic skills.
On the other hand, there are sports, usually ones with an
high level of repetition to gain mastery, where overlap of the
above-mentioned skills does not have as great an impact.
Sports like gymnastics, figure skating, tennis, and swimming
tend to fall in this category.
There are just so many repetitive motions that need to take
and hours that need to be put in, that without some amount of
specialization, reaching any level of mastery is nearly impossible for
Think again about that research I mentioned earlier (article
the amount of time and hours an athlete needs to put in to reach expert
levels of performance, 10 years or 10,000 hours. That is why you rarely
see athletes in these types of sports reaching the highest levels
without a certain amount of specialization along the way, and sometimes
at a very early age (much earlier than high school).
And lastly there are certainly sports that contain both some
and a need for a high level of skill repetition like volleyball,
basketball, and soccer. The physical skills mentioned earlier (jumping,
running, agility, etc.) definitely have strong overlapping tendencies
here; however, so does the amount of repetitive motions that need to
occur for gross and fine motor development to take place in order for
these athletes to become exceptionally proficient.
Now I am not going to claim myself as an expert in this area
not want anyone to look at the above divisions as comprehensive in
nature. They are just simplified examples to prove a point.
My purpose here is to demonstrate that overlap in sports is
on a continuum, with some sports containing more overlap than others,
thus requiring less of a need for specialization. Conversely, the need
for mastery in certain other sports lends itself more toward the
concept of strong focus in one sport.
However, this does not mean that people should (as many
use sports that have great overlap as justification that specialization
in a sport is wrong and unnecessary, and vice versa using sports that
have little overlap for justification that specialization is the only
way to go.
This exemplifies the argument that I believe should not be
place regarding there being only one right or best answer for every
athlete when discussing the idea of specialization. I just do not think
that that is the best or fairest way to look at this topic.
To do otherwise does not take into account all of the factors
should play such a heavy role in an athlete's decision as to whether
they should focus in on only one sport or participate in a variety of
sports. It is a personal decision that only they can make and no matter
which way they decide, there will be something gained and something
That is the nature of choices and decisions; it is a life
So, if the gain is more important than the loss to the individual
athlete then, in either scenario, the decision should become easier for
them to make.
Notice that very little of my discussion here mentions
is due to my belief that their role is one of guidance only. The
concepts of interest, desire, goals, and specialization must come from
the athlete themselves. I cannot emphasize this enough.
It is one thing to guide and encourage a young athlete toward
areas of interest and talent, or even hold them to commitments the
athlete has made. However, it is quite another to force them to
participate, train and/or practice on something they do not show a high
level of interest in doing. The latter almost always ends in disaster
for both parties.
Oh, and one last thing that needs to be addressed (even if
briefly) in relation to the long hours of sports participation many are
engaging in today. There is growing evidence that overuse injuries and
more severe injuries are certainly on the rise because of how much time
athletes are now spending training in their sport or sports.
This particular article was not written with the idea of
this issue; however, to not mention a couple of points with regard to
this would be inappropriate to say the least.
Whether an athlete chooses to participate in a variety of
sports or specialize in one, it is very important that they learn to
read the signals their body gives them when they are
training/practicing, and that they train with as much emphasis on
injury prevention and functional conditioning as they do on their skill
This is one area that a parent may need to impose more
influence, when necessary.
I know that my own children hated me asking all kinds of
regarding how they felt physically or encouraging special training to
When they were injured, even slightly, I would always err on
side of caution. They both, consistently, would tell me, "Dad, I am not
a baby" or "wimp." "I am fine and am able to play."
As a coach I was a stickler for never placing winning above
safety of my athletes, and I was even worse with my own kids. I
consistently tried to keep a long-term view of things and firmly
believe that this is in the best interest of all athletes at all levels.
Hopefully, the information I have presented helps to clarify this
current and continuing dilemma many young athletes are facing today,
making it easier for those involved to make an informed decision.
In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote that no
matter what path an athlete chooses to take, it will always hold
relevance and meaning for them as they move forward through their
"Extrinsic goals are achieved with greater efficiency
and with greater reward (satisfaction) when intrinsic objectives are
consistently held in the highest priority."