Sports Specialization – Good For Kids?

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“Should I let my kid specialize in a sport?”

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In this day and age, it seems like every coach is trying to get your kids to spend more time on their sport. The basketball coach wants little Jimmy to join the year-round AAU Team. The football coach wants Jason to spend all spring playing 7 on 7. It’s the same for baseball, lacrosse, swimming – Coaches tell parents that if their kid wants a leg up, he/she needs to dedicate all their time on that sport.

People cite Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” theory to support this argument, and logically it makes sense. The more time you spend perfecting your skills, the better you’ll become at them. Spend all summer shooting free throws, and your make percentage will go up. Spend all winter hitting curveballs in the cage, and you’ll be able to stay back on them come spring. Sports require a LOT of specific, nuanced skills, and coaches want to make sure their players are proficient enough in those skills.

Despite how much logical sense it makes, sports specialization has led to a slew of HUGE, unforeseen consequences. Specialization leads to overuse of certain parts of the body, and underuse in others. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, John Smoltz cited early specialization as THE driving factor behind the astronomical increase in teenaged Tommy John surgeries. Young basketball players are developing foot, leg, and knee injuries at an alarming rate. Do we even need to discuss playing a sport as dangerous as Football year round?

Another issue is the risk involved with putting your kid’s future in the hands of a single coach. Sure, shooting thousands of 3 pointers in practice should help your shooting percentage. But, what if the coach is having your kid shoot the wrong way? Those hours of developing bad habits are undoubtedly detrimental to your little athlete.

So what’s the answer? It’s simple. Have your kids play as many sports as possible. They don’t even need to play anything organized. As long as they’re playing. You see, there are a lot of specific skills you need to learn in order to excel at any sport. But there are also aspects of athleticism – speed, quickness, explosiveness, strength, hand-eye coordination, etc. – that you need to develop BEFORE you develop those other skills. These skills can be developed through pretty much any form of play, and also don’t depend on over- and imbalanced usage patterns. Once those traits are developed, they can be carried over into many sports. Then, you can start to develop specific abilities in tandem. There’s no better drill for an offensive lineman than learning how to play good defense in basketball. Want to strengthen underused parts of your baseball throwing arm? Toss a football around. You’d be surprised at how many skills that seem sport specific can translate to another sport. You think the best pros only play their own sport? Ask Rory McIlroy about his soccer playing….

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If your kid does turn into a great athlete, don’t worry that they haven’t been specialized enough. If they’re athletic enough to go pro in anything, they still have up to 5 years in college where they can hone their craft. THey’ll be doing so under the watchful eye of proven coaches and professional fitness and training staffs. THIS is the time for specialization – after they’ve laid the groundwork of an athletically balanced body.

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