Should You Specialize?

 In Sport Performance

This is the article I wish I had read when I was 15 years old. Since I’m now a lost cause, it is my goal to inform kids and parents faced with this situation and help them make the best decision. Hopefully this helps them gain a critical understanding of specialization and its implications.

So this begs the question, does an athlete need to specialize to be successful in a certain sport? The answer is “it depends” but yes, generally speaking, at some point one must specialize to reach their maximal potential in their chosen sport. How old should you be when you specialize? This answer also depends, but for the most part, you shouldn’t consider specializing until you’re AT LEAST 15-16 years old. Let me tell you why.

The first issue with specialization is it marks the degradation of total athleticism in a young kid. Those who play multiple sports can perform a wider range of basic athletic skills than their counterparts. Just like our education system attempts to provide a well-rounded education of the sciences and arts, we should do the same with kids’ physical development. Playing more sports exposes them to more movements, skills and situations that make them better movers. And being a better mover will automatically make them better athletes in any sport. Period.

Another downside to specialization is the incredibly high rate of overuse injuries, something most multisport athletes don’t have to worry about. If you only do the same movements for years, eventually something will give – a muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, or all of the above. Changing up the stimulus every once in a while keeps the body and mind fresh. Let’s not forget they’re kids and not professionals. Slow cook them as much as possible and their athleticism will blossom.

The third reason – and the reason that is so often overlooked – is that specialization leads to a lack of development. When an athlete has structured practice 4-6x a week it becomes very difficult for that individual to want to do more work on their own in a free play environment.

In a normal structured practice, a kid will get a handful of reps, shots, or touches due to the drilled nature of practice. But in a normal unstructured practice session – say, a practice session in the park or the yard – that same kid is getting hundreds of touches, shots or reps. Now I’m no mathematician, but hundreds of touches will equate to faster development than a handful of touches. Specialization has killed this free play environment where kids feel empowered to drill moves and skills without a coach or parent. In today’s world, they feel like “practice” alone is enough to be successful when in reality it is the individual work done outside of practice that makes all the difference. In fact, your progress will probably skyrocket with more individual free play.

When you take into account all the time spent commuting to practice when you specialize, you’re losing out on massive amounts of time that could be spent on physical, technical or tactical development. I’ll use myself as an example because I know many kids are currently doing the same thing I did. I traveled to practice 3-4x a week for 9 months of the year. Round trip I spent 3 hours in a car for a 90 minute practice. In one week I’d average between 9-12 hours spent in a car. Over 9 months I spent 324 to 432 hours in a car. Over my four years of high school I spent 1,296 to 1,728 hours driving. Let that sink in. What the hell was I thinking? In four years I spent 1,296 to 1,728 hours in a car. That’s 54 to 72 days. Think about how much I could’ve done instead of sitting in that car. It’s amazing that I let myself miss out on so much development.

So now I ask you, is it worth it? The answer is never simple. The only thing that’s important is that you think about the long term mental and physical development of your kid. Most coaches and clubs will be very persuasive and want you to specialize because it will benefit them in the short term. The question is, do you want to sacrifice long term development for short term success at the youth level? Success at the youth level and successful development are drastically different things. I can promise you that no one will remember that you were the Middle School County Champs.

– Coach Vince

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