Youth sports specialization is a sensitive subject for some and for others it’s totally foreign. What is youth sports specialization exactly? Is it where a parent only has their child play one sports and focus on that one sport to develop the next star? If so, I’m not a fan of that. At the same time, what if a 7 year old only wants to play one sport, because that’s the only sport they like? Some kids in this age range truly love just one sport and absolutely have no desire to play another sport. I think this is ok and very rare. I think playing different sports is great and helps you become a better athlete, but this all depends on the individual.
How I grew up being active in sports
Growing up in Texas, Colorado and Michigan as a kid I grew up playing soccer, basketball, American football, But then I also remember living in Colorado up in the mountains, where I would ice fish, ice skate, hike and all that good stuff. Then when I moved to Texas around age 7-8, I spent my Summer at my grandparents swimming in their pool. So I love sports! I think growing up playing these different sports helped me to meet new people and even feel better about playing them now as an adult.
What is youth sports specialization?
There’s a lot of talk about youth sports specialization in America lately, so I wanted to touch on it a bit. Youth sports specialization is when younger kids [ages 6-11] are playing only one sport to get ahead. I can tell you that in my 10 years teaching 100 classes per month, I haven’t seen but a few parents or kids doing this to get ahead. Some kids really only love one sport and this is rare! Why make a kid play a sport he or she doesn’t want to play? But most 7 year old kids don’t know what their favorite sport is. Sometimes they are better at a sport they don’t like as much.
Should kids play multiple sports?
I think that most kids [ages 5-10] should play multiple sports, but some kids are very unique. I don’t think you should force some kids to play a sport they don’t want to play. In 10 years, I have come across a lot of athletes/soccer players! Some are 6-7 years old and they LOVE SOCCER and know more pro players and teams than I do. It’s really a cool thing to see. These kids parents half the time never played soccer, it’s just that certain sports are born in some people. I don’t think it’s wrong for these players to only want to grow up playing soccer, or whatever sport it is. But most kids should try out many different sports in all the different seasons of the year.
Old school mentality works best
At the end of the day we all have in us natural ability. Then, with opportunity and working on the right things and staying focused on your goals, good things happen. In the last decade there has not been any soccer, football or basketball players come on the scene and dominate. The best soccer & basketball players in the world right now are the same best 12 years ago. That mentality and the older mentality is what worked best. Jordan, Kobe, Emmitt, Messi, Zidane, Ronaldo, Pele, Maradona, Mia Hamm & Carli Lloyd. Putting in hard work on the fundamentals. Nowadays with technology kids are practicing the wrong things that they see on YouTube or Facebook. Google ‘soccer skills’ nowadays and it’s freestyle jugglers and silly tricks with the ball. You can’t waste your time on that stuff.
My two daughters’ sports paths
Being a father of 2 girls between the ages of 4-9 years old, I know what most parents want for their kids. For my oldest, we have let her try swimming, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, volleyball. She is not one of those kids who only loves one sport; it’s like she can’t decide from swimming, basketball & soccer. So we want to just keep her moving along in all of them and encourage her to work on the technique [skills] at home. I think kids need to learn to work on their own at something they really enjoy and want to improve in. If my daughter did that more, we would get her private lessons, but she needs to really show she will take advantage on her own.
What activities my wife and I invest in private lessons
The two things my wife and I have invested in private lessons are swimming and piano. Both of my girls do year round piano lessons because they work on it at home, and they really love music. With swimming our main reason to have them doing private or small group lessons is for safety. Now that my oldest is almost 9 years old, we will probably start reminding her to go out and work on her own more in basketball and soccer. She does these things, but not so much actual training [reps] more just playing. There is a difference and she understands, but so far is not that kid who will just knock out 10 reps of 5 different skills.
By 10 years old if we feel that private or small group training is going to help her we will entertain the thought. But for now both of our girls are involved in many different things that they really enjoy so time is the challenge and just wanting to have family time also. There comes a time when having freedom as a family will be hard to come by.
Some kids only like one sport
Being a full time private soccer trainer I see every age, level and personality. Some of these kids have very high desire and others don’t yet know what they want. Some of them only play soccer and others are multi sport athletes. I think it is rare for young players ages 7-9 to already know what they want to play going forward, but there are kids like this in every city. I don’t think it’s fair to them to make them play a sport they don’t want to play. Yes, in school they have to choose 1 or 2 extra sports, and that’s fine because it’s only a 8 week commitment and it is good to learn different sports. But when it comes to club sports, most kids already know by ages 9-12 what their favorite and best sport is.
Preventing burnout in youth athletes
At the end of it all we want our kids to have fun and learn all there is to learn. Every parent is aware of burnout, but the hard thing is every kid is different which makes it hard to know what is too much. From what I see it’s more of what’s in the player, but also how they are educated by parents and coaches. Kids with parents who teach them that it’s important to work hard and listen usually end up doing that at some point. Some don’t have the sports maturity at ages 7-10, but by 11 years old it should have hit.
Then there are other kids who just work hard from the get go and never have to be told anything by their parents. I have trained many kids whose parents never played sports, nor do they really care for sports, but their kids absolutely love them. So if you have those kids who have that natural desire and they are given that opportunity there is no stopping them. The main thing they need is a parents support to give them the opportunity.
I ended up playing college soccer and pro soccer, but didn’t only play soccer growing up. From 2nd – 9th grade I always played 2-3 sports throughout the year. I do wish I would have spend more time training with the ball on my own and with friends. We played all the time, but we didn’t train. Meaning, we just played 2v2 or scrimmaged instead of technical training. Playing is most fun, but you will not improve your mechanics/form or technique that way. You need to do both [play and train], because they bring different unique traits to your game.
Ages where kids can finally narrow down to 1 sport
By middle school [ages 12-14] you can start to see that kids definitely know which sport is for them, but most continue to play at least 2 different sports in school. Once 9th grade [freshman year] is when I think most kids should just play one sport. The reason is because the ones who play multiple sports in high school are mentally and physically more tired. I know there are some kids who are awesome and love 2-3 sports and if they are feeling good, then go for it! Everyone is different and that’s what makes it impossible to have a firm belief that playing multiple sports is for everyone. By 9th grade focusing on one sports is not considered youth sports specialization, so don’t feel it is wrong. Do what’s best for you.
Combination of select soccer with school sports
Out of all the kids I train, the ones who play multiple sports are the ones with the sore muscles throughout the week. I ask them, why are they sore. They say, because of basketball or volleyball or football. I am not saying these sports are the reason, but I am saying that the combination of school sports with year round club soccer is a lot. I don’t think at this age it’s too much, but by 9th grade I think that most athletes should think about playing only 1 sport. At the end of the day these kids all need to learn what sore is. They need to know what hard work is and the difference out body feels when it goes through different stages and times.
School sports training knowledge
I am not a big fan of the way many of these school operate their sports programs. In the area I am here in North Texas [Dallas] the school district decides what is taught in the weight training room. The stories I have heard are unbelievable. Middle school and high school coaches are having volleyball girls and soccer girls lifting heavy weights, injuring their backs. Just about every story I hear of is, is them not wearing lifting belts during the exercises that require belts. For those who don’t know, the lifting belts are to protect the athletes back. Speak up for your kids if they are not being taught right or if they are feeling pain. Getting a doctors note is something that you might have to do.
I sometimes think that the club soccer players should get a pass on some school sports activities. Club soccer is where they will learn and improve the most, so it should be put first for some sports anyways. It’s great that school coaches make them work hard and learn to play different sports, but to be fair middle school sports are not even competitive. It’s a mix of good players and not so good [skilled] players. The reason is because they make the players play more than one sport which is cool, but also what makes it not high level from school to school. With all the youth sports specialization culture going on it makes it hard for some kids to compete, but if they are meant for it, given the opportunity, educated to work hard on the right things then they will achieve.