Some parents/coaches believe that early specialization is the best (if not only) way to ensure that their child turns their love of sports into a college scholarship or even a career. Others argue that early specialization is actually ruining youth sports because it pushes young players too hard, too fast, and too soon. Which side of the argument are you on?
Believe it or not, there may be a few benefits to early specialization in youth sports:
1. In sports where peak performance typically occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, specifically women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating, early specialization is often seen as the only way to become a top performer. For instance, Olympic gymnasts must be at least 16 years of age, or turning 16 within the calendar year, in order to compete. And on the 2012 U.S. women’s gymnastics team, the athletes were mostly 15-18 years old. A girl who starts gymnastics at 3 or 4, versus 7 or 8, is going to have years more experience and training and get set on the “Olympic path” much sooner.
2. Early specialization may be the best way an athlete can be a top performer in their age group. For instance, if a baseball coach wants win the Little League World Series, the best way to ensure they have a team of top-tier players is to encourage their athletes to play baseball and baseball alone, focusing year-round on hitting, throwing, base running, and so forth. Players that want to also play soccer or basketball might be well-rounded athletes, but that may not matter to a coach who only cares about building a team with the best baseball players around.
3. Early specialization can provide youth athletes with more access to better coaching and higher levels of competition. The younger a player is when they devote themselves to a specific sport the more time they have to develop their skills, making them more talented and competitive players and giving them access to more high-powered travel teams. Those more competitive teams typically have better coaching staffs and take their teams across the country to compete.
However, regardless of what benefits you may think early specialization has, the drawbacks and negative effects are impossible to ignore. Studies have shown that early specialization:
- can lead to overuse injuries;
- promotes parent/coach values and interests regardless of how it effects the kids
- increases the chances that the child will suffer burnout and quit sports
- reduces the chance that children will stay active in sports as adults
And even in sports like gymnastics, where the athletes tend to be much younger than in other sports, early specialization comes with plenty of risks. Check out this video from the University of Minnesota:
Choosing to specialize at a young age is a huge time investment, for both the parent and the child, can be incredibly costly (travel teams come with HUGE costs), and comes with a fair share of risks for physical and mental exhaustion. It’s important that, if that is the path you want your youth athlete to go down, you make sure it’s something they want to do because it’s what they want; not just because it’s what you want. And be willing to let them take a step back if they realize that it’s just too much.