How to Decide When Your Child is Ready to Specialize in a Sport

Although exceptions exist, it's best for young athletes to play several sports rather than specializing in one too early.

For every kid with dreams of playing a sport professionally, a parent stands behind him or her, working hard to actualize that dream. Almost universally, parents want what's best for their children; and to many, youth sport specialization and having their child play a sport exclusively and train year round—and/or quit other sports to focus on a single sport—seems like an obvious way to give their offspring the best chance to succeed.

RELATED: Why You Shouldn't Specialize in One Sport Too Soon

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is flawed. For the majority of youth athletes, specialization has the exact opposite effect. Any parent seriously considering having (or letting) their child play only one sport from a pre-pubescent age should consider these six points:

  1. Will my child move in many directions, react to different stimuli and train in a variety of ways if he/she plays one sport exclusively?
  2. Does my child get a chance to rest properly and recover after games and practices? Does this sport have an off-season?
  3. Will my child perform one or more movements repeatedly during his/her training sessions and games?
  4. Does the household budget allow for my child to receive proper strength and conditioning guidance? If not, where can costs be cut to do so?
  5. Will my child risk social isolation if he/she plays one sport exclusively?
  6. Does my child ask to play only one sport? If not, is it really what is best for him/her?

The importance of motor skill development

At an early age, athletes receive a greater benefit from diverse motor skill development. That boils down to this: The more directions they move in, the more stimuli they react to and the more diverse their training during games and practices, the better overall athlete they will be in the long run.

RELATED: Should My Kid Play Multiple Sports?

Before they reach puberty, young athletes should ideally use upwards of 60 percent of their training time on fundamental movement skills—acceleration, deceleration, jumping, stabilizing, throwing, catching and producing force. Those are just a few of the basic skills that are honed through involvement in multiple sports. Creating a solid foundation at an early age gives young athletes something to build from as they mature and gain strength.

Consider the classic pyramid analogy. Building a broad and solid base of motor skills supports the acquisition of more sport-specific skills later on. For any sport, parents should ask, "Will my child move in many directions, react to different stimuli and train in a variety of ways if he/she plays this sport exclusively?"

Be aware of overtraining and overuse injuries

First, some definitions:

  • Overuse injury. Refers to an injury caused or exacerbated by a repeated action or movement over a period of time, as opposed to an acute injury, which happens in an instant.
  • Overtraining. This is the term used when an athlete continually performs at a level (either in intensity or volume) that exceeds his or her recovery capacity. In essence, proper rest is not programmed into the athlete's busy schedule of training and games.

Obviously, with an overuse injury, proper attention must be given to the pain; but overtraining is easy to misdiagnose, since lots of other things that often happen to young kids can cause fatigue, irritation and reduced performance. Since sports are increasingly available to kids year-round, it's easy to play several sports at once (a good thing) but never have enough time to recover properly between games or practices (a bad thing). Some see that as a reason why specialization is needed; however, proper rest and off-seasons are a more sustainable and reasonable approach. Often, common sense and self awareness can help parents recognize the symptoms of overtraining.

Ultimately, the parents must ask, "Does my child get a chance to properly rest and recover after games and practices? Does this sport allow for an off-season of any kind?"

RELATED: Why Playing Multiple Sports Can Help You Score a Scholarship

Though they are avoidable in most cases, overuse injuries in really young athletes are becoming more common. At our facility, we often see young athletes who repeatedly perform a specific motion come in first to see our physical therapists for treatment of overuse injuries before they visit with our strength and conditioning staff. Tennis (swings and serves), ice hockey (skating stride), baseball (throwing) and soccer (kicking) are a few of the popular sports that can result in an overuse injury. Again, awareness is a key to combating the issue, and parents should ask: "Does my child perform one or several movements repeatedly during their training sessions and games? If my child exclusively plays this sport, will the lack of compensatory movements (often provided from other sports) potentially lead to an overuse injury?

If the answer is yes, overuse injuries are a real concern and should be addressed. Simple remedy? Play other sports and perform movements that counteract the repetitive motions of the main sport—though it is also possible to combat this with the next point.

Hiring a good strength and conditioning coach is one of the best investments parents can make to advance their young athlete's development 

For many families, focusing on a single sport doesn't actually reduce the cost of playing that sport. Parents shell out for top equipment, personal coaching, out-of-town tournaments and seminars and much more, all in the pursuit of success in a single sport. Unfortunately, engaging the services of a quality strength and conditioning professional is not always high on the priority list. Most parents view such people as personal trainers, and in their opinion, what preteen needs a personal trainer?

A qualified strength and conditioning coach can help an athlete avoid many of the pitfalls mentioned above. With proper programming, he or she can provide motor skill development, counterbalance movement patterns that can lead to overuse injury and recommended rest periods or bouts of lower intensity to avoid overtraining—not to mention spotting symptoms for what they really are—while simultaneously working on the proper training stimuli to help the young athlete become better at his/her sport.

Though it should be a no-brainer, parents should ask, "Does my household budget allow for my child to receive proper strength and conditioning guidance? If not, where can costs be cut to do so?

Often, cutting out a tournament or two and eschewing the newest and advanced gear can help offset this. The benefits of a good strength coach far outweigh those of a few minor tournaments or unnecessary gear. And if it still is too expensive, talk with some coaches and facilities to see who can work within your budget. Most strength and conditioning coaches understand the importance of their role and would rather see a young athlete work with someone than not at all. Look for coaches certified by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), which is the gold standard in the strength and conditioning community.

Don't dismiss the importance of non-sport factors

Now that we've addressed some important issues involving training and performance, we can make what is arguably the most important point of them all—how this affects the child outside the playing arena. No parent willingly has his or her child do something that is not in their best interest, but often when it comes to athletic pursuits, the spirit of competition clouds the judgment of otherwise rational parents.

Growing up, one thing I remember vividly about playing sports was how many friends I made through each sport. Some sports my dad coached and some I initiated. Others, I started playing because friends from another sport got me to join. Between basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and golf, I must have played with and competed against several hundred people before high school. Had I focused solely on a single sport, that circle of friends would have been dramatically reduced. If your child is considering an individual sport like tennis or golf, the reduction may be even greater. Of course, this excludes school and other extracurricular activities, but it is a factor that should be considered.

Parents should ask, "Will my child risk social isolation if they exclusively play this sport?"

It all boils down to one thing: It's really only about them.

If all the other considerations have been addressed, and early specialization is still on the table, one last consideration is this:

Does my child ask to exclusively play this sport? If not, is it really what he/she wants and is it best for him/her?

Specializing in a sport at an early age is not a curse that guarantees future overuse injuries and burnout. The media glamorize examples like Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi and their focus from an early age, but research offers a fair share of cautionary information. Most important, it often shows that when the decision is driven by the child, the likelihood of long-term success increases substantially. This doesn't dismiss the fact that a move to a single sport often increases the pressure to succeed, hypes the perceived seriousness of their play, potentially removes the factors that brought them to the sport in the first place, and introduces them to a level of maturity and competitiveness that may be well beyond their years.

In some extreme cases, the child is not even aware enough to make the decision, and in my opinion, if that is the case, specialization is not the proper route to take.

If the youth athlete understands the commitment and is eager to make the decision, it should prompt a discussion between parents and child (and perhaps later with coaches and trainers) to determine the right path. For every tale of a father who made his son skate two hours a day from the age of 3 until the NHL called, there are many more in the professional sports ranks who were drafted or highly competitive in several sports. For every Woods and Agassi, there's a Tim Duncan, who, before he became one of the best centers in NBA history, was a swimmer with Olympic aspirations. Or LeBron James, who was anointed the next Michael Jordan yet still played wide receiver for his high school football team. Or Bo Jackson, or Todd Helton, or any of the thousands of other athletes who chose to specialize when the appropriate time came. Share with your child the positives, the negatives, the time commitment, the sacrifices and make an informed decision together.

Your child will appreciate that more than any medal or trophy.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: INJURY | TRAINER | YOUTH SPORTS