When you think about most 14-year-old athletes, even seriously competitive players, do you think many of them would be willing to leave behind their family and friends and travel half-way across the country to train for their sport? Well Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas was only 14 when she moved to Des Moines, Iowa to join the gym that would propel her to becoming an Olympian. Obviously it was the right move for Gabby because she came home from the London 2012 with a gold medal for individual all-around and gold for team all-around. But athletes like Gabby Douglas don’t come around every day, regardless of the sport. There are plenty of really talented youth athletes out there, those who are just “born” with it—but at what age should we as parents and coaches start pressuring them to become great? Can you be too young for competitive youth sports, even if you have the talent?
Every now and then you read a story about a hot shot baseball or basketball player that already has the attention of the pro leagues, and they might have not even graduated high school yet! But how do athletes get so good at such a young age? Youth sports organizations, even just community leagues, are becoming increasingly competitive as many parents and coaches see athletics as a way for their child to shine now and, planning for much further down the road, get scholarships for college. It’s not that uncommon to see travel leagues have U-8 teams, for high schools to develop programs with community leagues to create “farm teams,” or for parents to pay for private coaching and training sessions to give their youth athlete an edge.
Some sports, like gymnastics, require a very serious commitment at a very young age. If you look at back at 2012 Olympics, on any team, chances are there wasn’t a single female gymnast much older than her early 20s. Many were still in their teens. Runners, on the other hand, peak later. But some parents are pushing their youth athletes to specialize in a single sport younger in life, hoping that a 100% commitment will give them a leg up over someone that splits their time between different sports.
The argument of specialization rages on among sports parents and coaches—should you give a child the opportunity to try a bunch of different things or help them focus on the one thing they are really great at? There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument. Some argue against specialization, saying it takes the fun out of youth sports, increases the risk of repetitive motion injuries and puts too much pressure on the athlete. Others say that specialization at an early age helps a youth athlete reach much more elite levels of performance and competition over their athletic career?
Which side of the argument do you fall on?