Talented student athletes face a big choice these days: Specialize in the sport they play the best, or sample multiple sports throughout the year?
Many sports parents ask me about sport specialization, and in increasingly more situations they tell me they are prompted to answer this question because their child’s coach has asked them to consider specializing (meaning play only one sport). Some coaches suggest to specialize because it will increase the child’s chances for a future college athletic scholarship, although the odds for this occurring are remote regardless whether an athlete specializes (only about 5% of all high school student athletes will play in college). In other cases, coaches think sport specialization allows kids to maximize their abilities in one sport, play with other similarly serious student athletes year-round, or even create super-teams because of the group’s dedication to only playing one sport.
Parents feeling the pressure
Some parents have told me that they feel the pressure (overtly and covertly) to have their child specialize so that the team can develop into a championship-caliber team. While this may be true, the question remains whether sport specialization is a good thing for individual kids/families? Kids who specialize practice more, train more, and play more games — but they also run a much greater risk for sport injuries and burnout as a result of playing so many games.
Interestingly, not only have parents expressed concerns around the decision of sport specialization, but many kids have told me similar stories. Specifically, some kids have felt that if they didn’t commit to one sport, the kids who do commit will tease, bully, or even ignore those who choose not to specialize. For a kid, this kind of pressure can lead to a poor decision made only to please other kids on the team, not the individual being cornered into sport specialization.
Examining the effects of sport specialization
Kids who specialize in one sport may benefit from the decision in some ways, but they could also end up regretting the decision over time. Breaking the decision down, here are a few pros and cons to consider:
- More practices and games usually leads to better athletic development
- Unique competitive situations, practice partners, travel experiences, and expertise coaching
- In some cases could lead to local, regional, and even national championships — memories kids will carry for a lifetime
- Could possibly increase chances for an college athletic scholarship, though this is debatable
- Eliminates other sport opportunities
- Could prevent other academic, social, community, and volunteer experiences
- Intense schedule can sometimes negatively impact grades when there isn’t enough time for studying
- Increases odds for sports injures and sports burnout
Have we gone overboard suggesting to kids — sometimes as young as 6 years old — that they need to specialize and fully commit to one sport over all other sports and activities? Critics of sport specialization suggest that kids are too young to make such an important decision, and many who do agree to specialize later come to regret it when they see the commitment required coupled by the other life opportunities missed. Proponents of specialization, however, talk about the deep bonds developed with teammates and coaches; learning the importance of life skills including motivation and perseverance; and how the busy schedule helps prevent kids from getting in to trouble with drugs/alcohol, gangs, and other risky social endeavors.
Talking to the coach
So what do you do when the coach approaches and tells you that the best move is for your child to specialize in the sport he/she coaches? As you can see, this is a big decision with very different potential results. If one of your child’s coaches suggests your child should specialize, consider using the following tips to help navigate to the best decision:
- Think about the coach making the suggestion — has he coached your child long? Does he know your child personally, and have insights about why it is best for your child to specialize?
- Ask the coach for his specific reasons for making the suggestion and determine if her reasons match yours.
- If a future college athletic scholarship is the motivator, does the coach have an accurate understanding of how few kids earn “full-ride” athletic scholarships?
- Ask the coach what, if any, consequences your child will face if she does not want to specialize? Of course, the answer here should be none.
- Think about the time and money concerns relating to specializing, and decide if this makes sense for your family.