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Part 3: Specialization in Youth Sports, Good or Bad?

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Getting back to 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 some sports that tend to have a genuine overlap between them, more so than do 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 overlapping characteristics. If size, speed, agility, jumping ability, coordination (hand/eye), etc. are high priorities in a sport, then usually these attributes easily 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 extremely high level of repetition to gain mastery, where overlap of the above-mentioned skills does not have as great an impact. Sports like gymnastics, ice skating, tennis, and swimming tend to fall in this category. There are just so many repetitive motions that need to take place, and hours that need to be put in, that without some amount of specialization, reaching any level of mastery is nearly impossible for most. Think again about that research I mentioned earlier (article #2) on the amount of time and hours an athlete needs to put in to reach expert levels of performance. 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 overlap and a need for a high level of skill repetition like volleyball, baseball, softball, 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 and do 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 kind of on a continuum with some sports containing more overlap than others, thus requiring less of a need for specialization, while other sports need for mastery lend themselves more toward the concept of strong focus in one sport.

However, this does not mean that people should (as many coaches do) 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 taking 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 that 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 a loss and a gain. That is the nature of choices and decisions; it is a life lesson. So, if the gain is more important than the loss to the individual athlete then, in either scenario, the decision should become easier to make for them.

Notice that very little of my discussion here mentions parents. That 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 their 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, ever so 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 addressing 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 overworking, and that they train with as much, or more, emphasis on injury prevention as they do on skill development and conditioning. This is one area that a parent needs to take charge of at times. I know that my own children hated me asking all kinds of questions regarding how their bodies were feeling, in addition to encouraging training to prevent injuries. When they were injured, even slightly, I would always err on the 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 the safety of my athletes, and I was even worse with my own kids. I always had a long-term view of things and firmly believe that this is in the best interest of all athletes at all levels. I suppose, at some point in the near future, this topic, increase of injury in youth sports, will be something I address in a much-needed article on this blog.

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 athletic experiences.

“Extrinsic goals are achieved with greater efficiency and with greater reward (satisfaction) when intrinsic objectives are consistently held in the highest priority.”

Kirk Mango
Becoming a True Champion