One of the recent trends in youth sports is that children are specializing in one sport, as opposed to participating in a variety of sports, at a younger age. For example, in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and ‘90’s it was common for a boy or girl to play soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball/softball in the spring. Now starting as early as 8 years old, there are more boys and girls playing the same sport all year round.
Is specializing a good trend in youth sports or not? In researching this question for my book, 101 Ways To Be A Terrific Sports Parent, I found that the answer is that a parent can’t paint every child with the same brush. For some children, playing one sport 24/7 is not enough. The child loves and thrives on playing the sport as much as possible. For other children, though, specializing in a sport at a young age increases the chances of sport burnout. As one 12-year old who plays soccer all year round recently said to me, “Soccer is starting to feel like a job for me.”
From a sport psychology point of view, the key point is not whether the child is physically capable of playing one sport all year round, but is the child emotionally ready to do so? Is the child mature enough to handle the extra stress and pressure all year round. If on a travel or elite team, is the child psychologically prepared for the expectations that come from being on an elite team? Is the child socially ready to be part of a more intense sports team? In my opinion, unless the child is both physically and emotionally ready to specialize in one sport, the disadvantages can outweigh the advantages.
If a parent chooses to encourage their child to specialize in one sport, it is hopefully for the right reasons. That is to say, specialization can offer extra time for skill development and learning mental and physical skills necessary to compete. More practice time can help to fine tune some specific sports skills. Specialization can also put the child in a position to get more extensive coaching and opportunities to learn about being a good teammate.