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The game plan

To specialize or not

There are many great reasons for kids to participate in youth sports programs: exercise, self-confidence, teamwork, life lessons, and friendships.

The youth sports culture has, however, changed so much over the last few decades. It’s easy to get caught up in something you hadn't bargained for when you signed up little Johnny for tee-ball a few years ago.

Gone are the days of after school pick-up games in someone’s backyard. Today’s kids are shuttled, sometimes daily, to planned, structured practices, supervised by a coach or a team of coaches. By the time kids are ages 9 or 10, it’s not unusual for them to practice several times a week in a competitive league.

What’s more, many of today’s young athletes play on “traveling teams” that play one sport year-round. So, instead of hanging up their football cleats in the fall to play basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring, today’s student athlete might “specialize” in one sport.

Sport specialization is a personal decision

“If a student specializes in one sport, they are making a choice to become as good as possible in that sport,” says Greg Schoon, PE teacher and head football and track coach at East High School in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s a personal decision. As a coach, I support whatever choice the student makes. I stress that it’s not the athletic ability that’s important. It’s the lessons learned from participating that matter. And I encourage parents to offer positive support.”

The end goal with sports specialization, says Schoon, is often to land a college scholarship. “While this may happen on occasion, in most cases, it’s not realistic,” says Schoon. Less than one percent of student athletes will receive a full-ride athletic scholarship. “Plus, it’s an incredible amount of pressure for most kids."

"For those students who want to attend college, it’s far more important to work on academics, and strive to achieve their best possible grade point average." Plus, multi-sport athletes may be more likely to be recruited or offered scholarships, adds Schoon. Often, these kids are better all-around athletes. They are not done developing, and they are less likely to burn out.

Schoon grew up in a small town in northwest Iowa where there weren’t many opportunities for entertainment besides playing the sport of the season. “I played football, basketball, golf and baseball. I think it made me a better athlete, overall. I didn’t train year round for any sport until I played football in college. I made a lot of improvement during that time, but I was also ready for it,” says Schoon.

Is there a good time to specialize?

According to David Epstein External Site, sports journalist and author of “The Sports Gene,” parents and kids should avoid specialization and instead sample a variety of sports through at least age 12. Other experts say 14 is a good age.

“The age is debatable,” says Schoon. “Each kid is different. I think the main thing to understand is that kids are not mini adults. It’s best to let them play freely, explore different sports, let them learn to love sports naturally and in their own time. Ultimately, it’s really about being active for life.”

According to Samantha Brough, certified athletic trainer in Des Moines, Iowa, the logical time to specialize, for most athletes, is during the college years. “During college, there never really is an off season, so it’s not really possible to play multiple sports. Plus, colleges offer strength and conditioning programs all year round, so the athletes are staying in better shape overall and getting a well-rounded program.”

Schoon adds, “There’s a really good chance that middle school and high school are the last chances that athletes will have to play many different sports. If they love it, let them do it.”

Things to consider when it comes to sport specialization

  • Cost. Often, year-round sports are more expensive than playing multiple sports throughout the year. In year-round sports, you have the added expense of off-season camps, clinics, gear, tournaments and road trips, among other expenses. When students play in multiple school-sponsored sports, the school usually provides the supplies and most of the gear, so the cost is minimal.
  • Social circles. If a student specializes, they’re going to be interacting with the same group of coaches, players and families over a longer period of time. If they’re in multiple sports throughout the year, they’ll be around a wider variety of individuals and coaches. It’s important for students to expand their social circle and gain new perspectives and experiences.
  • Physical skills. Students who participate in multiple sports, says Schoon, can develop different sets of skills that can potentially help them in other sports. A wide receiver in football might make a good soccer goalie. A high jumper in track could transfer that skill to basketball. The endurance built in cross country or soccer might transfer to volleyball, hockey or swimming. Hand-eye coordination from softball or baseball might be at an advantage in tennis or basketball. The possibilities are endless.
  • Potential burnout. Kids who specialize are more likely to burn out, lose interest, or feel too much pressure to succeed, says Schoon. “In my experience, students who change sports with each season tend to be re-energized by the process and ready to move on to something new.”
  • Potential for injuries. Without the right coaching, more intense or year-long sports may cause injuries. According to Brough, “Generally, in track you see more stress fractures. In baseball, you see shoulder and elbow injuries. I think injuries have more to do with not using proper form or doing too much too fast. If you have a baseball player who decides to specialize, and they want to pitch, and the coach doesn’t know how to develop a pitcher, problems may develop.”
  • The fun factor. When it comes to youth sports, your child should be enjoying what they are doing, no matter his or her age. If they’re not having fun, figure out why. Is it too much pressure? The coach? Is it you?

Rules of any game

A checklist for players who want to get the most out of their experience:

  • Play by the rules — all the time.
  • Don’t overreact or lose your temper.
  • Cheer for good plays made by either team.
  • Don’t talk trash, tease or provoke opponents.
  • Win or lose, be sure to shake hands with opponents and officials after a game.
  • Don’t yell at teammates for making a mistake.
  • Admit your mistakes instead of making excuses or blaming others.
  • Give it your best effort, even when your team is losing by a lot.
  • Point out incorrect calls when they go in your favor.
  • Don’t argue with calls that go against you.
  • Don’t show off.
  • Have fun!

For more information about kids and sports, visit External Site.

Healthy Living
Healthy Living