Why Young Athletes Should Avoid Early Specialization

This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on June 27th, 2014

When it comes to youth sports, how much is too much? What is the perfect recipe to maximize a young athlete’s potential, without overdoing it or causing burnout?

It is such a tough question, especially today when sports clubs are demanding more and more out of young athletes, coaches are encouraging kids to focus on one or two sports, and the media glorifies teen athletes who dedicated their entire childhood to training.

Parents often tell me that they struggle at finding the balance between providing their kids with every athletic opportunity possible, but at the same time making sure that their kids aren’t over-committed. I recently attended a seminar on this exact topic, and the core message that I took away from the event confirmed what my instinct has said all along: early specialization in sports hurts kids more than it helps them.

The biggest drawback to early specialization is, of course, the risk of burnout. When a young athlete puts a majority of her time, energy, and intensity into one sport, she is much more likely to exhaust her interest in that sport before she even approaches her pinnacle in it. Dialing back the commitment and intensity, even if it is just attitudinal, is the best way for a young athlete to stave off burnout. Sure, pulling back on the reigns might have an impact on an athlete’s progress in the short run, but if it means she is still doing (and loving!) her sport three years down the line when her over-committed competitor has dropped out, then I’d say she’s the one who comes out on top in the long run.

Not only does early specialization dramatically increase an athlete’s risk for repetitive stress injuries, it hinders her development as an overall athlete. The best thing a young aspiring athlete can do, is to simply develop her overall athleticism. I personally maintain that I would not have become an Olympian in ski racing, if I hadn’t participated in a wide range of other sports when I was growing up. The diverse background made me both athletic and highly adaptable; qualities that serve any athlete in any sport.

Specializing early robs kids of so many important experiences. From a physical standpoint, an athlete who specializes in one sport at a young age may not develop important supporting muscle groups, or she may fail to develop the power or agility that can only be acquired through cross-training. From a mental/emotional standpoint, athletes who specialize early just miss variety. Well-adapted, successful athletes have a wide breadth of skills and strengths. Focusing on only one sport at a young age, while it may seem like the athlete is making an investment in her athletic future, actually robs the athlete of the diverse experiences that she requires to reach her full potential.

When it comes to the parent’s role in their young athlete’s development, Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders couldn’t have said it better: the parent’s job is to “match the child’s commitment.” I think there is so much wisdom in that statement. If your daughter is really into her sport, the parent should step up to support her in every way possible. If your daughter is not really into her sport, resist pushing her beyond what she wants.

Finding a the best way to promote an athlete’s longevity and success in sports isn’t easy, but every signal that you need for guidance is usually expressed by the athlete herself. The cues are there, you just have to watch for them.