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Sport Specialization: What your child should know about year-round teams

When helping your kids make the important decision whether to play a sport year-round, be careful not to over-generalize.

One of the recent trends in youth sports is that children are specializing in one sport, as opposed to participating in a variety of sports, at a younger age. For example, in the '70's, '80's, and '90's it was common for a boy or girl to play soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball/softball in the spring. Now starting as early as 8 years old, there are more boys and girls playing the same sport all year round.

Is specializing a good trend in youth sports or not? In researching this question for my book, 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent, I found that the answer is that a parent can't paint every child with the same brush. For some children, playing one sport 24/7 is not enough. The child loves and thrives on playing the sport as much as possible. For other children, though, specializing in a sport at a young age increases the chances of sport burnout. As one 12-year old who plays soccer all year round recently said to me, "Soccer is starting to feel like a job for me."

From a sport psychology point of view, the key point is not whether the child is physically capable of playing one sport all year round, but is the child emotionally ready to do so? Is the child mature enough to handle the extra stress and pressure all year round. If on a travel or elite team, is the child psychologically prepared for the expectations that come from being on an elite team? Is the child socially ready to be part of a more intense sports team? In my opinion, unless the child is both physically and emotionally ready to specialize in one sport, the disadvantages can outweigh the advantages.

If a parent chooses to encourage their child to specialize in one sport, it is hopefully for the right reasons. That is to say, specialization can offer extra time for skill development and learning mental and physical skills necessary to compete. More practice time can help to fine tune some specific sports skills. Specialization can also put the child in a position to get more extensive coaching and opportunities to learn about being a good teammate.

The wrong reason to specialize would be the fear that your child will be at a distinct disadvantage if he or she takes a season off. I had a parent recently say to me, "Johnny has to play baseball all year round or he will fall behind all of the other kids who are playing year round and who will be trying out for the same high school team."

My response was to show this parent a lot of evidence that taking a season off can actually be helpful for a child's sport development.

Taking a break from a sport can:

  1. give the child an opportunity to "recharge his/her sports batteries" and be more motivated the following season.

  2. give a child a chance to develop other interests that may help the child compete more effectively in the future.

  3. diminish the chances of over-training injuries.

In my opinion, playing multiple sports until high school still has lots of advantages. In fact, if you look at most professional athletes, they played multiple sports growing up. Playing a variety of sports can help develop different types of coordination. Playing multiple sports also can help you meet different people on different teams and help develop social skills. Finally, there is no question that children are less likely to burn out on competition if they play multiple sports.

It is important for parents to recognize that they have a choice in terms of encouraging their child to specialize in one sport. More isn't always better. Just because a child is physically prepared to do so, it doesn't mean he/she is emotionally prepared to do so. As usual, the parent knows the personality of the child best and needs to factor this into the decision making process. The specialization decision may need to be revisited on a yearly basis. As a child matures, grows, and develops emotionally, the decision for one year may not be the best decision for the following year. In this respect, parents don't need to think that the choice they make about specialization one year has to be set in stone and can never be changed.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.