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When Should Your Young Athlete Specialize?

This question torments every parent who wants to support their children's efforts as they pursue their own personal greatness in a sport. It is also one of the most frequently asked questions I get from parents of young athletes.
08/24/2015 09:56am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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2015-08-24-1440389790-1803848-kidsplayingsoccer.jpgThis question torments every parent who wants to support their children's efforts as they pursue their own personal greatness in a sport. It is also one of the most frequently asked questions I get from parents of young athletes.

This question isn't just one of professional interest to me. Rather, it's personal for two reasons. First, in my youth, I achieved an international ranking as a ski racer (though I wasn't even close to being truly world-class) while not specializing until I was 13 years old. Second, I have two daughters (ages 10 and 8) who are aspiring ski racers (perhaps following in their dad's footsteps?; that is a topic best saved for another time) and want to give them every opportunity to achieve their goals.

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question, but there is some emerging research and the opinions of experts (you'll get mine later in this article) that should help you in finding an answer that works best for your young athletes and your family.

A recent blog post in the Huffington Post describes a new initiative by more than three dozen sports organizations, including USOC, USTA, MLB, NFL, NHL and the NCAA (I'll assume you're familiar with the acronyms) that argues against the current trend toward early specialization in one sport (as defined as a singular commitment to a sport to the exclusion of others before the age of 12 years old). Research cited in the article (as well as other studies) indicate that specialization too early results in increases in overuse injuries, burnout and drop-out rates, and, surprisingly, a decrease in overall athletic development. Conversely, the article describes how multi-sport participation in children can lead to better long-term performance and, just as importantly, lifelong enjoyment and participation in sports.

This past winter, I did my own informal survey of some of the best alpine ski coaches in America about this very question. The consensus was with the multi-sport approach. They said that skiing weekends and holidays (and no summers) till kids are 13 years old is sufficient should they decide to commit to the sport then. Only one coach dissented, saying that times have changed and early specialization and high training volume is necessary for later success in ski racing (he used the Olympic gold medalist, Mikaela Shiffrin, as an example).

I should point out that this discussion really only applies to sports that are highly technical, for example, gymnastics, ski racing, tennis, golf and baseball, just to name a few. There is plenty of evidence and examples that athletes can begin endurance sports, such as running, cycling, and triathlon, as late as their early 20s and reach world-class status. As an example, USA Triathlon, the sport's governing body, instituted a post-collegiate development program a few years ago. In this program, they identified and trained recent college graduates who were strong swimmers and runners. The result after just a few years is that the top two women in the world came out of the program.

In summary, if you want your kids to stay healthy, stay motivated and perform better in the long run, the experts and the research say that multi-sport participation before adolescence is the way to go.

That's all well and good and very consistent with what my mind is telling me. But it's wildly out of whack with what the world is telling me and what my heart is screaming at me. Facts and informed opinion may carry weight intellectually, but anecdotal observations, however skewed they might be, weigh far more emotionally.

You look at just about any sport these days and the messages are very different than those of the experts. In my hometown of Mill Valley, California, the soccer fields are packed daily with kids as young as eight years old playing on traveling teams. In ski racing, I see kids that young, with speed suits, armor, and race skis, putting in weeks of on-snow training during the summer at places like Mt. Hood, Oregon and Whistler, British Columbia, not to mention skiing five to six days a week during the winter. As I travel the country working with young athletes and sports programs, I see this same early specialization in just about every sport out there.

Plus, in so many sports these days, you hear about superstars who were raised almost from day one to be champions: Serena Williams, LeBron James, Mikaela Shiffrin, Tiger Woods, Gabby Douglas, Michael Phelps and Michelle Wie. These remarkable athletes are in the news constantly, so we are constantly being bombarded with the "If your children don't specialize early, they'll never become superstars" mentality.

Truly, the messages that we as parents get is that if we don't get our kids on the 'athletic-achievement train' early, they will be left behind at the station with no chance of catching up. And doing this disservice to our children makes us REALLY BAD PARENTS!

As the Huffington Post blog points out, youth sports are no longer for children these days. The "youth-sport-development industrial complex" is big business that seems to cater to parents with big dreams for their children than to what is in the best interests of the children. So, there are a lot of people out there (e.g., private coaches, athletic development programs) sending the message that early specialization is necessary, but they're more interested in making a buck than your children's athletic or personal development.

Before I share my opinion (for what it's worth) on this issue, it would probably be helpful to define what "success" means. Though it could mean many things (e.g., win an Olympic medal, having a career as a professional athlete), I am going to suggest the following. Athletic success, in the context of looking for an answer to this question, involves competing at a national level as a junior and being able to earn a college athletic scholarship. Anything above that, such as making a national team or competing internationally, is not only statistically a near impossibility, but also has, in my opinion, more to do with inborn talent, opportunity, and luck (e.g., no injuries) as it does with early specialization. And don't believe that "10 years, 10,000 hours" gobbledygook that Malcolm Gladwell has made millions off of (here's an amazing article that rips his argument to pieces).

Now for my opinion. A question I ask myself is whether times really have changed in the last few decades such that an early start is important to later success. Few athletes in any sport specialized at such a young age 20 or more years ago, yet they achieved remarkable levels of performance. There have certainly been advances in conditioning, technique, and equipment that can account for the improvements we see now compared to "back in the day." But is it also due to athletes in the last two decades starting earlier and gaining greater mastery in comparison to previous generations? Only time will tell as we're only now seeing the first wave of athletes who have specialized early reach athletic maturity.

One thing that is clear is that there is a critical period between the ages of seven and twelve during which time young bodies are best able to learn and master new skills. This fact raises the question of how much volume do young athletes need during that period to master the fundamentals that will allow them to reach a high level competitively (and avoid injury and burnout). As far as I can tell, there isn't any definitive evidence of what that number is, for example, swings of a bat, club, or racquet. I do know that, in ski racing, some of the top junior programs in the country are counting the number of gates run at certain ages.

There are examples of so-called late bloomers who didn't specialize early or show early promise in their sport. In ski racing, Ted Ligety and Bode Miller come to mind. There are examples in other sports, though I can't think of any in tennis, golf, or gymnastics which may mean that they tend to be inspirational exceptions rather than the rule to follow. Plus, we don't hear about the athletes who specialize in their early teens and get a college scholarship or even compete at an international level because we don't hear about them in the media.

One bit of information that is potentially telling as we explore this question is that, at least in some sports, early success doesn't guarantee success later in children's athletic lives. For example, fewer than 30 Major League Baseball players played in the Little League World Series. And a 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Ski Team found that success before 15 years old wasn't predictive of who made the national team when the racers matured. What this means is that early specialization doesn't appear to give kids a leg up in their athletic development in the long run.

So, which road should you go down? It's a big decision because it could, in theory, determine whether your children become superstars or benchwarmers (now that is pressure!). Or, it could mean a youth filled with fun participating in many sports or burdened by injuries or busted dreams. Because there is no clear answer to this question, your decision will be more personal, based not on what will ensure your children's future athletic success (because we just don't know for sure), but rather on your young athlete and your family.

Several questions come to mind as you ponder this decision. First, what do your children want? I have seen many young athletes who had an unquenchable passion for a sport and were driven to specialize out of their sheer love of the sport. In these cases, the parents' responsibility is often to guide their enthusiasm and energy in ways that will sate their burning desire to eat, sleep, and drink their sport while also ensuring their health and well-being in the long term. You can do this by creating athletic and personal balance in your children's lives to ensure that their passion doesn't inadvertently turn into injury and burnout.

Second, what is best for your family? Children's specializing early in a sport impacts not only them, but their entire family, including their parents and siblings. There are three resources that must be considered. First, how do you want your family to spend its time? Early specialization requires an immense family commitment of time and any use of time involves opportunity costs (time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing other things).

Another resource that is usually in limited supply is money for families. So, how do you want to spend your hard-earned money (again, except for affluent families, there are significant opportunity costs).

An additional resource that is also limited in parents is their energy. Do you want to expend considerable energy in your young athlete's early specialization? This energy can include finding and organizing teams and coaches, travel to and from competitions and training camps, maintaining equipment, plus the volunteering that is required in most youth sports.

Lastly, what will the impact of early specialization by one child have on your other children? Will the time, money and energy devoted to one of your children negatively impact the attention you give your other children as well as the opportunities and experiences they have to succeed (and just live their own lives).

A final thought about this oh-so-difficult decision. As I ponder this discussion as it relates to my own family, I keep returning to one word: "values." Ultimately, you must do what is consistent with your family's values. If you value a single-minded focus on one sport at an early age for your children and are willing to make choices led by that early specialization, more power to you. At the same time, if you don't see the value of early specialization and have other priorities for your children and family, more power to you as well.

So, where does all this leave us in deciding whether to follow the path of early specialization (which is being pushed these days at every level of athletic development) or that of the experts and research who say it is better long term to have multi-sport participation until age 12 or so and then make the decision on whether to specialize?

Even after this lengthy discussion, I don't have a clear answer to whether young athletes should specialize early. Both paths hold potential risks and benefits, both short-term and in the future, athletically, personally, and for the family. It all seems like such a roll of the dice.

As for the path our family is taking with ski racing, my wife and I have decided to maintain a balanced approach to our daughters' participation in the sport. We are giving them the best opportunities to develop the requisite skills they will need should they choose to commit themselves to ski racing, while maintaining a degree of balance and freedom about what path they can take in the next few years. Is this the right decision for us now? Definitely. Will it turn out to be the right decision in the future? Check back with me in about 10 years and I'll let you know.