Youth Sports- Early Specialization

There was a great article in the NY times about Elena Delle Donna,

It prompted me to post an old article I wrote. PS- Youth sports

is a mess we may never be able to clean up,

kind of like the economy.

Early Specialization

I’m not sure when the phenomenon of early specialization was born.

At some point a parent decided

“why not just fast-track our kids right past Little League and Pop

Warner and right into the Pros”. Parents in all sports felt

they could follow the lead of Earl Woods ( Tiger’s dad)

or Richard Williams ( Venus and Serena’s dad) and

just concentrate on one sport. I love to tell parent groups

that I speak to that for every Tiger Woods

or Venus Williams there are probably 5000 kids who hate

sports and resent their parents for all the pressure.

As a parent, ask yourself this question. Have you ever told

anyone “ I don’t push _(insert your child’s name)____ he/she

really wants to do this?” The latest one to fuel the early

specialization fire is tennis star Maria Sharapova.

The TV folks couldn’t wait to tell us at Wimbledon that she

had been holed up in Fla since age 7.

Check out this quote from LA Lakers Coach Phil Jackson:

“40 million kids play sports, and most of them are between

7 and 12. By the time they are

13 more than 70 percent of them have stopped playing

because it’s not fun anymore. All of a sudden when

kids get into junior high, we feel this need to have them

become professionals, and the coaches

become professionals… The message I’d like to get

out to them is to honor the game. The goal, or the victory

is important, but team sportsmanship, the

athletic endeavor itself is just as important.

One of the problems is that most team sports are what

are called late specialization sports. This mean that early

concentration/ specialization has actually been shown to

slow development rather than speed it up.

Historically the great players in team sports seem to hone

their competitive instincts and develop their athleticism

in a number of sports and then begin

to specialize in their teens. In addition early specialization

often leads to dysfunctional parent/ child relationships.

The early search for the Holy Grail places undue pressure

on a young athlete who should be learning that sports are

actually fun, not just about winning. Believe it or not,

kids play for fun and, will actually attempt to make the teams

fair and encourage competition when

left to their own devices. Remember when you were a kid

and the teams were uneven. You made trades to create

a competitive game. The thrill was competition, not winning.

For many youth sport parents the idea

of fair teams is an anomaly. Stack the team. Get the best

players. Annihilate the competition. Get a scholarship.

Make money.Lets look at the following examples

Nomar Garciaparra ( Boston Red Sox)- played football,

soccer and baseball in high school. He actually attempted

to play football as a kicker while on a baseball

scholarship at Georgia Tech

Mia Hamm ( All Time Leading scorer in US soccer history)-

multi-sport star in high school

Kristine Lilly ( Leads the World in International Soccer Appearances)-

captained three sports at Wilton, Conn HS.

Brendan Shanhan ( Detroit Red Wings) outstanding

Box Lacrosse player prior to entering the NHL.

Katie King- ( US Women’s Ice Hockey, two time Olympian,

current Boston College Women’s Hockey head Coach)

played both Ice Hockey and Softball at Brown University in

Providence, R.I..

And the list could go on forever. Early specialization

is a phenomenon created by self-interested and financially

motivated adults. It has little basis in fact and, the data

seem to support the opposite. This is just

some parental food for thought. There is no evidence t

o support the theory that early specialization leads to

long-term success. In fact, there is evidence to the

contrary as stated above. If you want your

child to be a great athlete, don’t focus on one sport,

play a different sport each season. The people who

encourage early specialization are all people with a

financial interest in your child playing

one sport year round. Those encouraging early

specialization usuallyrun the leagues, camps and skill

sessions and they fill the parents full

of ideas that have no basis in fact. None of the

players mentioned above left home at 14 to go to prep

school or, just played one sport from

age 6. The definition of insanity is doing the same

thing over and over and expecting the result to change.

Maybe we should just try the way that

worked in the first place?


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