Youth Sport Specialization: A Terrible Idea

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh raised some eyebrows recently when he recommended that football players not concentrate on football year-round but rather to play soccer for a portion of the year.

Every parent of every athlete in America should think about his suggestion.

One of the more troubling and counter-productive developments in youth sport over the past 20 years is the increasing pressure being placed on young athletes to specialize in a sport. The logic behind this notion is that the younger an athlete specializes in a sport the greater the chance of that athlete achieving success in that sport at the high school or college level.

That is ludicrous. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

All evidence points to the fact there is little correlation between early specialization and later athletic success.  Yet, all too often, young athletes are being pressured, mostly from coaches, to pick a sport (usually, the sport that particular coach coaches) to concentrate on, the earlier the better.

“If you want to start next year or if you want to have a chance at a college scholarship,” urges the coach, “you need to spend all of your time, effort and energy on one sport. If you are not dedicated to and practicing that sport, someone else is. And when the two of you meet, he or she will prevail.”

Parents, many of whom may not have a lot of experience with athletics or have visions of future athletic scholarships and stardom for their child, all too often defer to the wishes of the coach. But parents and their young athletes would be well served to consider several factors before committing to specializing at an early age.

First, is the physical toll. According to Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation’s most respected orthopedic doctors specializing in sports related injuries, the number of “repetitive/overuse injuries” sustained by single sport athletes is rising at an alarming rate. The fact is, our body parts wear out with overuse. When you choose to specialize in one sport, the wear and tear of the specific muscle, ligament and skeletal groups is intense and unending. Different sports require the concentrated use of different sets of body parts. Participating in several sports develops a well-balanced body and well-rounded athlete. When the time finally comes to specialize in a sport, a well-balanced and developed body provides more potential for long-term development and improvement.

And then there is the “burn-out” factor. While specialization may lead to some immediate improvement, over the long haul, it increases the likelihood of the athlete experiencing “burn out”. Simply put, when you pour all of your time, effort and emotion into any activity 365 days a year, year after year, it’s only natural that the chance of becoming tired, bored or simply “used up” increases dramatically. Specializing in a sport at a young age in the hopes that athletic success will be achieved years down the road may actually decrease the likelihood of long term success because it increase the chance that repetitive/overuse injuries will take their toll or that the athlete will simply burn out on the sport and discontinue participating.

If the potential negative effects regarding injury and burn out are not enough for parents and young athletes to reconsider specialization, a compelling case can be made that playing another, secondary sport will actually improve the athlete’s skills, competitive instincts and mental capacity when the athlete re-engages in his or her primary sport. Playing sports are playing sports. Regardless of the sport, many of the same principles and attitudes apply. It doesn’t matter what team sport you play as long as you are playing a team sport you are learning teamwork skills that apply to all sports. As long as you are competing, regardless of which sport, you are developing competitive instincts and skills that apply to sports across the board. 

Further, it can improve understanding of team dynamics when the athlete experiences being a major contributor in one sport but is more of a support player in a second sport. For example, being a “star” of a team requires certain leadership responsibilities and skills. The star in one sport will be better able to understand, motivate and lead less talented teammates if that star participates in a different sport where he or she was not the star.

Finally, it is imperative to understand and consider the motivation of coaches who push athletes to specialize in their sport. As the son of a high school football coach, I fully respect the time and effort that goes into coaching. And, for the most part, coaches have the best interests of their athletes at heart. But far too often coaches pressure athletes to specialize in the sport they coach more for their own ego and to ultimately win games rather than considering the long-term best interest of the athlete. Having their athletes concentrate on their sport is clearly in the short-term best interest of the coach and his or her team but it is hardly in the long-term best interest of the athlete.

In short, Jim Harbaugh is exactly right on the issue of sport specialization at an early age. We’d all be well served to heed his advice. 

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