Sports Specialization is Best, but Reality is not so Cut and Dried

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HomeBlogsJack Perconte's blogSports Specialization is Best, but Reality is not so Cut and Dried
Sports Specialization is Best, but Reality is not so Cut and Dried
Jack Perconte

Quick Reversal about Sports Specialization

After further reading, I know more about the dangers with early sports specialization. I also agree with study results, but that doesn't make the solutions to many scenarios any easier.

I began writing this article with the intention of putting a little dent into the dangers of sports specialization. Though I agree playing multiple sports is good, many situations exist where I thought specialization made sense. So, here is how I began that article with that intention. In an ideal world, kids would not specialize to one sport, and not at a young age. But, who has that perfect world? When to specialize is a difficult one for many and not as dangerous as the studies suggest.

Then, I read the results of recent studies and convincing articles about those study results. I realize how wrong I was and that it would be wrong to refute science. I further realize that I need to help get the word out about the dangers of early specialization.

First, a few things that I believe and most are backed by the research:

  • Early specialization means for ages 12 and under, and I would agree with that call.
  • It is never right to force or even encourage youth of any age to stop playing a sport they enjoy. That should be the athletes call when they get older, not the parents and certainly not their coaches. But, forcing kids to play sports they have no desire to play is not good, either. There begins one of the dilemmas of early sports specialization.
  • Parents should not have kids play only the ones they want them to play. Parents should present a variety of sports to youth to put them on the road to figuring out the one or ones they enjoy most.
  • Talent wins out and playing other sports does not stunt development in their best sport at the end of the day.
  • Mental and physical benefits exist for playing more than one.
  • Overuse injuries are real and come from year-round practice of the same sport.

Personal Sports Specialization Story

I never forget the day I got up at 5:45 am to drive my junior high aged son to basketball tryouts. He would have no problem making the team as he was one of the best players from the previous year. Also, he was tall, a basketball coach's happy dream, and now six foot five. Crazy tall for anyone in the world with the last name Perconte, but that is not the story here. Upon arriving at the school, there was some hesitation. Then, my son looked at me and said, "Dad, I don't want to play basketball." My first thought was, couldn't you have mentioned this last night? But, after asking if he was sure about his decision, back home we went, without me attempting to coax him into changing his mind. He seemed sincere with his decision.

Despite some pleas from the basketball coach to talk some sense into my son, his basketball career ended. I do not believe in forcing kids into something. I respected his call not to play. After all, his sport of choice was baseball, and he just wanted to focus on that.

Thank God for the studies state that specialization can begin and is not harmful around the teenage years. I do not want to have look back with guilt about my son only playing one sport. The thinking is that fourteen is a mature enough age to make that call. Insisting he keep playing at that age would not have been right.

Not so Obvious Sports Specialization Decisions

Some parents though have to deal with that situation when their kids are much younger. What parents do then, is more in question. The study results create a major dilemma for many sports parents. This dilemma has always been around, but other recent findings of concussions have put a new twist into things. Below are some typical situations that make the specialization call much more difficult.

As mentioned in the beginning, some conditions exist that make playing one sport seem logical. Parents are in tight spots trying to balance being pushy by not giving kids a say and allowing early sports specialization.

Scenario one

The young player likes no other sport. They love the one and desire just to work at that one. When they are in other sports, they pout about it and do not want to go to practices. As parents know, listening to a whiny kid is never fun.

Question - Should parents force them to play others and be miserable, because studies show that playing one is bad for them?

sports specialization sports specialization

Possible Solution

Parents give kids the option of finding another sport to play or taking physical training classes. Some physical activity is necessary and should enhance their athleticism. After seeing the work involved in conditioning classes, athletes often decide to play another sport.

Scenario two Son is a football player and daughter a soccer player. Both kids have the potential to play in high school. But, with all the known and unknown dangers of head injuries, their parents insist they quit those to play their one other sport.

Question - What do parents do? Allow youth to play a game that may endanger their mental capacities or have them specialize with the risks of that?

Possible Solution Another tough call, without a perfect solution. Allowing athletes to stay with the dangerous sports too long makes it more difficult to have them stop them later. The decision becomes more difficult with successful athletes, and as their friends continue to play the dangerous sports. Convincing kids on this one may take time. But for parents not willing to risk the concussions, the earlier the age they move them away from the sport, the better. Following the advice from scenario one above is an alternative but takes them away from friends.

Scenario 3 - An athlete loves the coach and the team. The problem is the team has moved to a high powered travel team that has gone to year round play and practice. Little time exists for playing another. If they play another too, it leads to many scheduling conflicts throughout the year. Deciding which one to go to when schedules conflict puts kids and coaches in shaky positions. The decision often alienates one or both coaches.

Question Do parents take their child off the year round team and away from friends believing year round is too much?

Most agree that the year-round play of one sport is not right for youth, but this team has taken that road. The decision is so hard because parents may be ending some of their child's friendships because kids tend to hang out with teammates. If they keep them on the team but do not specialize they risk over scheduling them with no free time to be kids. Having limited free time to be a kid is never ideal, either.

Also, when the year round coach is a positive influence on the players that is a valuable plus, too. Should parents take their child away from friends and an influential coach, knowing those are hard to find?

Possible Solution I don't know. This situation may be the toughest call of all and am not sure of the right answer. The many factors that go into this one makes this call a real difficult one. Anyone with a good solution to this one, please comment, I am not sure a suitable answer exists.

Scenario four The specialization call is difficult at times for high school aged players too. For example, a player is off playing their second best sport while their team is at some showcases for their best and favorite sport.

Question Does the college potential player risk missing exposure by playing the second sport?

This condition is another difficult call. The studies say that college coaches like to recruit multi-sport athletes. But without decent exposure, the opportunities for those athletes are few. For right or wrong, scholarships are about exposure and being at the right place at the right time. The superstar is going to get offers no matter what, but the fringe players need exposure. The window for getting scholarships opens fast and quick, and those that do not get at least their head out some get stuck when it closes.

Solution - Players with college potential should focus on their best sport when in doubt.

At the end of the day, the findings have scientific support, but the solutions to the results are not as cut and dried. Things are never black and white; there is a lot of gray.

About Jack Perconte

After playing major league baseball, Jack Perconte has taught baseball and softball since 1988 and offered valuable coaching training too. He has helped numerous youth players reach their potential, as well as having helped parents and coaches navigate their way through the challenging world of youth sports. Jack is one of the leading authorities in the areas of youth baseball training and coaching training advice.

All Jack Perconte articles are used with copyright permission.

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