Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores

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Sports-STACK-629x240In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome

(Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew.

Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed.

Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship.

By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists.

Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense.

It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.

Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.

It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.

Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.

I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.

So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years.  (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)
  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.
  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives.


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48 Responses to “Hey Parents: Quit Raising Specialists and Start Raising Omnivores”

  1. Nate Knopf says:

    As someone who coaches on a supposed “elite” team, I completely disagree with most of this. These things are only issues if the coaches involved aren’t aware of the above issues. We encourage our athletes to participate in other sports, our dryland program is designed to alleviate many of the issues of “specialization” and as someone who has seen how competitive it is out there, unless you’re blessed with once in a generation you are going to need to get a head start. I’ll cite Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter in Outliers about Junior hockey in Canada, but mostly citing his observation that the small gains year after year add up big in the end. If a kid in our program takes off 3 months year after year while his peer continue to compete, eventually he’s 3, then 6, then 9 then a year behind in terms of training. And as someone who has actually calculated how long it takes to get to 10,000 hours in our program (which is actually pretty light in terms of the amount of participation we expect), if you started with us at 8, which is a standard age, and graduated, then competed in college (going off the 20 hours a week NCAA allows) and factoring in average participation in each group, then you’d hit 10K roughly by the end of your senior year in college. The fact is that people that you’re talking about who were the football, basketball and baseball stars in the 70′s/80′s aren’t able to do that, there’s too much competition. If you want to play all of those sports you either need to be a phenomenal athlete (in which case it doesn’t matter how much you practice) or you better be prepared to play all of them at a moderate level, because the other guys on the team are making sure they’re on point with what the coaches expect and training in the offseason. I understand balance, we on our team stress that, but I get tired of hearing people bash specialization like it’s ruining kids lives. Every year we graduate 10-12 seniors, most of which started our team at a young age, and all of them cite our program as the most significant thing in there lives in terms of teaching them about life, how to work, focus, etc. And the 10-12 of their peers who didn’t make it all quit to focus on something else, but still cite the lessons learned with us as a net positive, even if they didn’t end up liking the sport itself.

  2. rodg12 says:

    LOL. Of course you’d disagree with most of this. You’re part of the problem.

    You wrongly hold the notion that by not participating in your sport, the athlete ‘falls behind’ while participating in other sports. Moronic and unfounded. While participating in those other sports, they’re learning skills to augment and refine their preexisting abilities. Not ‘falling behind.’

    But yes, let’s keep making kids choose their sports at 8 years old like you said. LMAO.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Hi Nate,
    Thanks for the response, and for sharing in such detail — much appreciated. I hear what you’re saying, and I’m glad you cross train and encourage your kids to participate in a variety of sports.
    I’d also like to point out one thing to consider: The 10K hour rule is not a magical number, and probably not worth structuring a program around. Quality of practice matters far, far more than quantity. (More about that here: http://thetalentcode.com/2013/06/07/forget-10000-hours-instead-aim-for-10-minutes/
    The point is not to bash specialization, but to bash mindless specialization, and to point out that it carries costs. To ask, how many kids quit the sport rather than join elite teams? Thanks again for the comment, Dan

  4. Bart Miller says:

    I seem to recollect a section in The Little Book of Talent that seems to completely contradict this post. I recall the section dealt with hours of meaningful practice, and in particular as it applied to the violin. In short, If you decide at age 18 to take up the violin and become a virtuoso, that you can never catch up to a child, who has practiced in earnest since picking up her fiddle while learning to walk.. So it would seem to me that while I absolutely agree about no specialization, particularly in sport, and since its statistically unlikely that a child will receive a scholarship in athletics anyway, this is bad advice to those parents that “know” that their child is different than all the others. Specialization, insert parents, has definitely ruined rec./community athletics, and many of those same parents are now doing the same to high school athletics, and those that suffer the most are our children. Fortunately, I’m old enough to remember my youth as a fun time, no stress, no expectations, no parentally pre-determined future, just time for me to be a kid. If this post makes even one parent reconsider the year-round specialization grind, then we have allowed a lucky little boy or girl the chance to relax and just be a child for awhile.

  5. Gabriel Ortiz says:

    Mr. Coyle,

    As always, thank you for your meaningful work and insight it is truly invaluable.

    I have to say, though, I agree with Nate. And, I’ve ready your previous article, which I thought was great, that addressed the idea that 10,000 hours is not the holy graile.

    I coach an elite girls soccer team. And, we’ve had girls come and go(because they wanted to take a season off). They have, since, come back and asked to try out for the team. And, the harsh reality is they are so far behind, at this point, it would be unfair to include them on the team(and, these girls are 9 going on 10), they just wouldn’t get playing time.

    We also, though, include various activities to encourage growth and deveopment: Strength and Conditioning, CrossFit(multi-joint movements), in the off season we intentionally incoproate other games such as Basketball(similar passing principals and movements), Flag football, similar cutting movements, throwing waterballons at each other, to encourage cushioning a pass, etc.

    And, I think this, to a certain extent argues against your previous R.E.P.S. post.

    In any event, I look forward to your constant updates.

    Sinc, -g.

    p.s. I just saw the additional clarifying post, which, probalby makes my post moot.

  6. Nate Knopf says:

    Dan,

    Thanks for the reply, I agree that 10K isn’t a magic number, more just something I’d seen in previous writings from you.

    In response to how many quit, I’d say about half of the kids who start young end up quitting, but mostly quit because they are specializing in something else, (mostly we lose em to soccer), or something artistic. I’d say mindless specialization is bad, but I really don’t see too much of that, most clubs understand that kids are going to participate in multiple sports, and understand that it makes them better at what they’re doing.

    I’d really encourage talking to some elite level coaches in different fields about specialization. I can certainly put you in touch with some in my field. I know there’s some kids who are “omnivores” but some kids might not have the athletic talent to bounce around from sport to sport and be successful. I know I had to specialize early because I wasn’t good enough to do multiple sports, and specializing helped me find more self esteem than trying different things.

    Finally I think that it’s hard to say specializing at anything is bad or not, I think it’s very specific to the person. Some people can’t handle constantly doing new things and need something repetitive to keep them in a groove. Others prefer new things and it helps them stay not burnt out. I guess my point was “elite” clubs know this (and since we’re ranked top 10 nationally among clubs I can say we’re elite) and we find the right training plan for the kid. I think parents read articles like this and purposefully hold their kids back from receiving good instruction and instead seek easy alternatives that keep them from actually finding out if they have talent in a particular field.

    Guess I just wanted to have the other side heard from, as I said the kids who go through our program (and I was one) all end up saying that it was a trans formative experience, and not just at 18, but at 40-50 years old.

  7. djcoyle says:

    Hi Bart, Thanks for the comment. I think what’s important here is to better define specialization. It doesn’t mean starting out — it means getting really, really serious to the exclusion of all other activities. With musicians, there are certainly cases of people who started young, got serious in their mid teens and still ended up world class. The point in LBOT was about starting out, not specialization. Incidentally, there are a few cases of golfers who specialized in their late teens (Y.A. Yang and Greg Norman being two examples) who ended up achieving world-class status.

  8. Joe says:

    What about what the kid wants?

    If the kid is forced into playing a sport year round when they don’t want to, you can be sure they won’t be playing after college or even through college, much to article’s 3rd point. Over-specialization and high expectation don’t stress the importance of truly loving the sport, loving competition, and seeing the big picture. You are there to challenge yourself, push your limits, and in some cases the limits of human capability in an enjoyable environment. When there is too much focus on physical development and meeting requirements, there isn’t enough focus on developing mentally and emotionally. Developing an exceptional human being, not just athlete.

    But there is also a case for specialization. When someone gets into sport they improve very quickly at first and then have to work harder and harder to see similar improvement. They make smaller gains each year as they start reach higher levels in their sport. Learning that it’s isn’t always going to be easy, how to identify and target weaknesses even as they become less obvious is also an important skill.

    But leaning these lessons requires a certain level of maturity. I’m not an expert, not a coach, but an athlete. So I don’t know when that is, but I do know that the athlete usually understands themselves very well and it’s a coaches job and a parents job to know and understand the kid just as much. To speak to Coach Knopf’s post, it is important that those kids learned about life, how to work and focus, but I would argue that it is the parents job primarily to so. I think many times parents drop their kids off for practice and forget about them. Thinking that the coach can just “raise” them. You also said that when a kid is talented, it doesn’t matter how much they practice. I have a few friends who are very talented and followed that logic. They are entitled, they don’t work hard, and they don’t appreciate how talented they are. It’s what holds them back from being great.

  9. Mike says:

    The problem is not generalization versus specialization. It’s listening to your kid and knowing when/if its healthy (mentally or physically) for him/her to take a break and do something else. Some kids are driven and love a particular sport; there’s nothing wrong with that. When the parents dreams interfere with what is best for the kid, that is the problem.

  10. Doc says:

    Joe, Good post. The first sentence is the most important.

  11. Travis Clements says:

    There’s a problem with Trace Savage. While we romanticize the disappearing multi-sport star, we have to summarily ignore the many kids who wanted a chance to play (even for just their favorite sport) but their potential spot, and the vast majority of the playing time, training and development was used up by one person monopolizing multiple sports because they were born with physical attributes that others didn’t have. In this sense, the (early?) specialization has helped to “level” the playing field by allowing kids who were less naturally gifted to develop the skill and sports IQ to eventually earn their way and justify their place on the team. Yes, there are still some multi-sport athletes living on their athleticism, but skill is the new currency. How fast you run or how high you jump is no longer the final judgement, but a part of the equation. For sports like soccer or gymnastics, where skills are developed before puberty, deciding to take it serious at 14 can’t undo the lost development. For sports like Volleyball and Football, coming to the party later is much less costly.

    The biggest problem in a sport like soccer isn’t necessarily the specialization, but the fact that most programs are NOT age appropriate at 6- 12 years old. They are not focused on skill development, but rather emphasize competition and winning (adult driven features). USYSA is trying to address that, but it’s a tough sell when you ask coaches to check their ego at the door and do what’s best for the kids first and always.

    This doesn’t mean I disagree with the bulk of the article. I’m just highlighting that there are also benefits to these changes, and even necessary in some cases to be competitive on the world stage. You don’t chew up and spit out athletes through specialization to do it, though. We are responsible to develop the child and development as a player and a person are way more important than any trophy or scholarship.

  12. Mike Horan says:

    As a HS track and field coach I fight the battle against specialization every year. We know from experience that many athlete who start or focus late can achieve at the highest levels in track and field, but also improve athletic intelligence and conditioning. There is a ton of Dara that athletic high achievers usually are not following the early specialization model. The following website (http://footballtalentadvisors.com/blog/tag/nfl-draft-multi-sport-athletes/ ) shows that most NFL draftees are playing multiple sports during high school. Data from the NCAA also strongly supports the same case.

    Personally, last year I coached two athletes both state champions and one a state record holder. Both came to track and field during HS from a basketball background. Both are now on scholarship at NCAA Division 1 schools. The shame is how many athletes (and parents) stubbornly give themselves only one chance for success when a second sport could be their best.

    Obviously, different sports have different demands and peak at different ages, but so many athletes find great success in sports they adopt late. Our Olympic bobsled team is filled with former track and field athletes. Some nations even have specific programs to identify athletes who might be fit from switching sports.

    You can accumulate fitness and skills for sport by developing general fitness and a broad base of athletic skills in youth and adolescence. Then at the appropriate time focus on one or two sports that are complementary.

  13. Through play we turn failure into learning-why kids prefer computer games http://footblogball.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/why-you-do-what-you-do/

  14. Dr MartinToms says:

    Hi Dan
    Worth reading our publication on this in Journal of Sports Sciences – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/22974248/

    Thoroughly agree though – and need to get the multi-sport, diversification & late specialisation message out there more!

    Cheers

    Dr Martin Toms

  15. djcoyle says:

    Great comment, Travis — really appreciate your take. Making programs appropriate/useful from ages 6-12 is a huge challenge — and one that receives incredibly little attention in most circles.

  16. Mike says:

    Another big issue with early specialization is how the teams are picked. Nate would have information for his program but in Outliers, Gladwell gave several instances of youth teams eliminating kids that were born furthest away from the cut-off date and being dominated by the older, more mature kids who were born closest to the cut-off date. They weren’t necessarily better, just older, stronger and more developed. The younger kids are cut and aren’t given the same opportunities as the older ones.

  17. Mike says:

    The 2nd sentence should read ….., Gladwell gave several instances of youth teams ALL BUT eliminating kids……..

  18. Robert says:

    Swedish athlete Carolina Klüft did long jump better when she was competing in those multiple events vs her just doing the specialization at the end of her careeer. She couldnt bridge the gap in technique.
    10k hours is just a guide, I can change patterns in golf in hours or weeks that people tell me should take 2 years.

    Multi practice at young age is the way to go, one is growth and second is many skills for one sport is useful in another. Here many do indoor sports during winter and soccer during summer.
    developing skills for the long haul is way more important than to win or compete at a younger age. The current skier Mikaela Shiffrin showed that.

  19. Pati Rolf says:

    Thank God not another article on specialization, many of us mothers, teachers and coaches know this. Keep up the message. Kids and adults are departing sport everyday. Keep the joy, love and growth alive, diversify.

  20. Armana says:

    As a young adult (24yo) I find this article extremely interesting as this is exactly how I grew up.

    I played every sport you could think of: basketball, swimming, volleyball, tennis, racquetball, tae kwon do, track, golf. I had to try it all and my parents encouraged it. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I made the decision to focus on golf because I felt I excelled at it the most. I competed all through high school, state champ and all. Got a scholarship to play for college. Graduated early and am currently competing at the professional level.

    I can’t imagine choosing golf so early and not having the experiences that I did with all the other sports, since they taught me so much about competing in different settings.

  21. AJ says:

    I rarely, if ever, leave a comment on a post but, I feel compelled to do so now because of some of the comments above. First, let me say… Dan, I truly enjoyed your book, The Talent Code. I have recommended it to many people, including a variety of my players. Second, I applaud your tact and diplomacy in handling many of the opinions above. As someone who has played, and been involved in sport on the amateur and professional level, scouting and coaching, and who has also been blessed to have a father who has played and been involved professionally as a scout, coach, etc…I find it interesting and amusing to listen to the variety of opinions. We all have different perspectives based on what we perceive to be our own valid experiences. I have to be honest in saying, it baffles me when people who have “elite teams” make such concerted efforts to extoll the benefits of their programs when they are profiting from them. I am very much aware of how economically beneficial and how big such programs are, and have resisted participating in them, even though I have been invited on many occasions to do so. As it was pointed out, it is an easy sell to parents who are desperate to have their children succeed where they didn’t and/or relieve them of financial burden by attaining a scholarship. With that being said, I applaud you on developing such a profitable and good business, whether I agree with the principles, or not. It was brought up in one of the other comments how only the very talented athletes can play multiple sports. I would argue that is backwards thinking. How can one perform explosive, balanced movements if one does not use those movements in a variety of situations and sports?? In my experience, it is the other way around…those who participate in a variety of sports, are the most talented athletes. You would be hard pressed to find a professional scout or coach (I having been one of them) in most of the major sports who doesn’t think that multi-sport kids become the best performer once they specialize. Science, and my anecdotal experience have shown me that everything Dan wrote to be true. There are many, including some above, who will look and find small nuggets to prove their point. I would say, see Expectation Confirmation-Psychology. While you may see a handful who are a little behind in skill level early on if they participate in multiple sports (also mentioned by someone above), you will find that if you let it play out, those who participate in multiple sports and wait to specialize, catch up and pass up the others in dramatic fashion. These comments are not to disparage anyone involved with these Eilte Youth Teams. I do support competition against the best in each sport. What I find difficult to stomach is those who preach to parents that their children must commit most, if not all, of their time at such a young age to one sport. This especially happens with many of these elite team programs and at the high school level by coaches who want and need to win at all costs. In the end, I applaud the Jameis Winstons of the world who tell their coaches, ” if you want me, you must let me play both sports.” The athletic ability you cultivate, and more importantly, the psychological and emotional skills you cultivate by putting yourself in a variety of situations is irreplaceable. This is beyond important, as I have also seen most kids get “burned out” when they have committed all of their time and they and their parents have pinned all of their hopes on one sport and one position inside that sport. To bet on one thing only is a bad gamble, no matter what you decide to do in life.

  22. Brock in HK says:

    Poor Tiger Woods – always the reference as the young specialist who now has problems. The Williams sisters, who you also cite as specialists, seem well adjusted, no? Was Michael Vick a specialist, or a multi-sport athlete? Can we draw any correlations to that and his dog grooming practices?

    While you’re supported by data on the injuries, continued sports participation, etc. that you have citations for, your correlation with specialization and relationship / emotional stability problems is not supported. Until you get some data, Tiger and others are an anecdote, and we can likely find many examples on both sides. I’m would guess there are plenty of pro athletes who were multi-sport athletes as youngsters who have those relationship problems you worry about. Those aren’t caused by all the pressure on one single sport, but by the quality of the relationships with the important people in their lives.

  23. djcoyle says:

    AJ, You say it all better than I ever could. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience so eloquently. My favorite line: The athletic ability you cultivate, and more importantly, the psychological and emotional skills you cultivate by putting yourself in a variety of situations is irreplaceable. So, so true.

  24. djcoyle says:

    Armana, Preach it, sister! Your story is fantastic and inspiring. Thanks for sharing it.

  25. Dave Hala says:

    Both the for and against points are B.S. Its about participation. Its about training to improve. It doesn’t matter if they end up being elite athletes or get scholarships. Its about competing in a group, learning to work as a team and developing those social skills. Those that need to need to and want to excel will. Those that don’t, won’t. Encourage those that really, really, want it…enjoy the company of those that are just along for the ride. Quit trying to “create a champion” or “earn a scholarship” Love them game, play, have fun. If you do that, it will happen.

  26. AJ says:

    Dave, I agree with your general thought of participation and the development of social skills. As I mentioned in my paragraph, there are important psychological and emotional skills being developed at the same time. To the point about striving to be the best you can be….this pushes the boundaries on that social, psychological, and emotional development. It is even more reason to have a variety of experiences under different circumstances and how that relates to the different teammates one may have. Sport in its purest sense develops a young person in many great ways. You are correct in saying it’s not all about being the greatest ever, The love of the game/passion is mentioned in Dan’s book as one of the two components to greatness. The other from what I remember is “need.” These two things fuel young people to persevere through tough moments of practice. These lessons can be taken into adulthood and help them succeed in all areas of life. The point I think you were trying to get across is, MOST will never participate at the highest level…and that’s ok. But, there are many takeaways from striving to be the best and persevering as I just mention because this will be carried over into every other part of life. Maybe you won’t end up being the best soccer, basketball, or baseball player in the world, but you will stretch your limits in multiple ways which will help you succeed in life.

  27. TL says:

    Since the first little league pitch and the first pee wee football touchdown parents have been looking for away to “promote” their children. As a whole parents want the best for their kids and if placing then into a “elite” program furthers their goal, so be it.

    In fact I would encourage any parent with the means and fortitude to forward their child through the “pay to play” model. I thank you for pumping money into our economy by supporting the “elite” business model. Local community’s are benefiting from the single sport model through camps, individual lessons, travel expenses, membership to the elite gym, uniforms, coaches salaries…fill free to add to the list. It all helps support the tax base that builds our public parks, pools, fields, and local programs.

    Have you ever wonder why there is such a fevered pitch from the elite clubs whenever this topic is approached. As a parent you have spent thousands of dollars and 10,000 hours perusing a goal …..you might get a little worked up over someone questioning your parenting/ financial decision. As a business owner it takes a year round commitment from the dedicated parents to keep the lights on and gas in the company truck. He too will point to the success of his program. With that said I whole heartily wish them the best. I am reminded of many coaches throughout my life that have said “surround yourself with people that think like you do.” Meaning if you truly believe your child at the age of 8 will benefit, I applaud your commitment. But I must admit it is for selfish reasons.

    I am personally relieved each time a parent takes their son or daughter and plays outside of the local park system. The dad that was upset over playing is gone. The superego kid that has been told he is the best (because his private pitching coach said so) is now in a plane flying across the country headed to the next super fantastic high profile tournament. The league director that took his ball and went home is now building a warehouse so his elite team will have somewhere to practice in the rain. Meanwhile my kid just hit a home run off the slowest fastball I have ever seen….played basketball where his team lost miserably…..swam in the 100 meter freestyle and came in second…picked up a fumble and ran it in for a touchdown and still had time to play in the dirt on Sunday. His best 11 year old seasons ever!

    I know that he is “behind” by “elite” standards. But I am ok with that. For many parents and kids it is still a game. I encourage the parents not to let their kids give up because they don’t belong to the elite. If you keep it in perspective and surround yourself with like minded parents your kids will benefit. I am not questioning other parents choices. I just don’t won’t the parents that are not in that loop to give up and take their kids out of the game. The game may not look as pretty as it does on the other side of the fence so we choose to not look over the fence. In the mean time elite parents keep paying and our kids will keep playing.

  28. Bart miller says:

    Great comments everyone. But damn… But let’s be honest..Trace Savage all time stud name list!!

  29. AJ says:

    I concur, Bart! Thought the same thing when I originally read Dan’s piece. It is such a great name that it crossed my mind that it might be fictional. Lol

  30. Sam says:

    Great post.

    To the elite soccer coach who benches/cuts kids at 9-10 years old because they’ve taken a season off and are “so far behind”, I would respectfully suggest that maybe you’re putting your win-loss record (for 9 year olds!!!!) well ahead of athlete development.

    Soccer players reach their peak in their mid-twenties, generally, so you have no idea whether you’ve turned away the next superstar for the sake of this season’s championship.

    It seems clear: great athletes will excel in their eventual chosen sport both because of and despite doing multiple sports; and non-athletes will NEVER reach the “elite” level no matter how many thousands of hours, private lessons, elite camps, and year-round specialization they contribute to their sport. So, for those kids, keep things in perspective.

    And, please, let’s stop benching kids at early ages – years and years from their possible peak performance – for one more trophy and ribbon!!

  31. MJ Boekel says:

    The issue at hand is not those that are successful, but those that are not ….

  32. Doc says:

    Don’t recall where I got this or who wrote it but it was about violence and children and what it is. Adults are causing violence toward children if they:
    1. Cause them to witness any form of physical or verbal abuse.
    2. Do not protect them from bullies.
    3. Desert them emotionally.
    4. Refuse to set limits.
    5. Use them to supply their own need to be admired and respected.
    6. Use them to take away their own disappointment and sadness by demanding they perform, achieve, be beautiful, be athletic, be smart, etc.
    7. Use them as scapegoats for your anger and shame.
    8. Refuse to resolve your own unresolved issues from the past.

  33. Trey says:

    Good comments supporting both sides, but there is not a black and white answer/solution. Part of the issue is not the specialization, but the ages that kids now begin organized sports (3 is common where I live). Kids do not learn how to play on their own. They go from one organized sport to another. Growing up in the 80s (I’m 39), all the kids in our neighborhood were multi-sport athletes although much of it was not organized. We played tackle football in the yard, two below football in the street with an all time quarterback, basketball, baseball, soccer, wrestled, and made up a bunch of other games. We did all this into middle school (age 12/13).

  34. Will Dooley says:

    One of the best comments sections ever. It’s almost made me get over the multiple layers of absurdity associated with “elite” girls soccer at “9 going on 10″.

    Having had the opportunity to work with – to date – over two dozen players that age who’ve since earned All-American and or Youth National team positions, little would have distinguished them at that time from many, many others. All participated in other sports through Middle School, about half through high school. (And those one sport HS kids were invariably deeply involved in some other non-soccer activity.) In retrospect, it is clear that the collateral activities contributed to the stash of “hours” that informed their performance on the soccer fields as they matured.

    In that sport, any kid at age 14 with 1) a thorough grounding in the technical elements, 2) an understanding of the small group situations that are the building blocks of team play, 3) good “soccer habits” and 4) positive attitude and character has the foundation to reach the higher levels of the game – or more. It does not take 6-8 years of non-stop, single focus training to develop that foundation.

  35. As a boy, after enough foul balls had broken windows, our neighbor bulldozed a nearby field for us and moved us off his lawn. We raked away stones and planted some grass (not much luck there) and played baseball and football on ‘our field’ all the time. No leagues. In winter we’d play hockey on their pond. We’d organize “track meets” with improvised high jump and pole vault bars. We’d have swimming races and even contests to see who could hold their breath and stay under water later. It was play and we loved it.

    Later, in high school, I got to play soccer, ice hockey, and baseball on junior varsity and varsity teams. . I caddied at a golf course every summer and spent all day every Monday (caddie’s day) playing as much as possible. I went to college and played soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse on freshman teams. Then I continued a career as a varsity player (making an all league team and setting some modest scoring records). I played intramural everything: softball, hockey, squash, track, bowling. There was a joy in it all. It was fun.

    For almost a decade I played in a men’s soccer league in New York City, gaining familiarity with every dirt patch called a pitch in the Metropolitan area. Today, at age 67 I still referee high school soccer (after years as a coach). I get to do a game every day in the fall. I get the thrill of whistling some championship games at the end of the season. In the winter, I still play open ice hockey and help coach a kid’s team. I play two or three times a week. My occasional round of golf is awful – played with buddies who share stories and laughs as we work on the most frustrating game in the world.

    Why? Because it’s fun. I like the people I do it with. I like to test myself against younger and better athletes. I like to help younger athletes develop, both as a ref and as a coach. I enjoy good company and a beer when we’re done.

    My favorite form of exercise is still chasing a ball or a puck, trying to make and take advantage of time and space in a way my opponent can’t. I continue to take childish glee when I score.

    My doctor marvels at my health. My cardiologist tells me he seldom sees people like me. The bouncer recognizes the guys I play hockey with when we enter a bar. I know that the ability to play, to find delight in movement, to experience frustration at failures and elation at little successes are still important to me.

    Two weeks ago, on an open air rink, on a really cold night, we played four on four. I got to play with the coach (a former pro player) with and against our high school players. It was the most fun I’ve had on the ice in a long time.

    As a Dad, whenever I’d drive my son home from a practice or a game, I’d always ask, “Did you have fun today?” Now it’s the question I ask myself. When the answer becomes no, I’ll stop. Until then, let me feel the wind in my face when I move, the excitement of being open, or making a deft pass. And always the thrill of something in the back of the net. Any sport can be a life sport. Sport for life.

  36. Kayu says:

    My daughter was born in Japan and lived there until age 11. In Japan the school system is structured in such a way that all kids participate in a variety of sports all year long and no one is left out. After school/weekend sports programs paid out of the parent’s pocket are rarer than in the USA because Japanese schools haven’t cut out sports (and arts) like they have here.

    When we moved to the States she considered several different sports but never made a single team because she was competing against kids who had specialized in a single sport with private instruction from a young age. However, at her Japanese Saturday school in our city she was able to join the volleyball club because this Japanese-American school is structured like a true Japanese school and so is inclusive in regards to sports. My daughter will graduate American high school this year and not only has not been able to participate in a single sports activity but also is highly discouraged against ANY physical activity.

    What I am seeing is the 99% v the 1% played out in American students as well in regards to sports and physical activity. Sad, because the 99% don’t get the chance to be physically fit because the 1% of specialists get all those resources.

  37. S. Castillo says:

    Dan your premise of the importance of a diverse foundation over a specialized foundation is spot on. Although I personally don’t think this is arguable, it doesn’t surprise me that some find it is. As a college coach who was fortunate enough to have a diverse athletic background which included every major sport and a few not so major, I ended up playing collegiately and professionally in tennis. I not only bring all that combined athletic experience to a single sport for my personal benefit, but also use it to help teach tennis to athletes coming from other sports by showing them how to build a game around their existing sports foundation. I use examples of how transferable the skills they learned in baseball, basketball, soccer, boxing, or golf are to the sport of tennis. This connection would be difficult without an omnivorous background. Not only would my perspective be contrived if I drew analogies to sports I had not played, but my athletes would know it was purely conjecture. Dan aptly pointed out, individuals who have multiple sports experiences are better able to ” adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process”. Once they learn the developmental process in other sports they find that the process is the same and now they can pursue a sport or skill they are TRULY meant to specialize in that fits them both physiologically and psychologically. The choice to specialize should always, always, always be the individuals. Whether you become an elite performer or just someone who wants to learn a new sport, instrument, or language having a broad foundation in your field gives you a huge advantage if you decide to specialize.

  38. djcoyle says:

    Bill, I think I speak of a lot of readers when I say, I aspire to someday lead the life you are leading. Fantastic stuff, and well said. Thank you.

  39. James says:

    Wow. Great posts. Having fun, specialization and diversification can all be seen as different roads to engagement and ignition.

    For some diving deep into one sport with the laser focus of a specialist will allow them to see and experience their game profoundly. They may see endless new challenges within the one game.

    Or they could end up hating the game because of all the stuff they gave up to do this one thing.

    For others, playing a wide variety of games will allow multiple trips down the learning curve. Each trip can be a new opportunity to challenge the way they see the sports they already know and create new connections, strategies and skills.

    Or they could end up constantly running from one thing to another, never mastering anything. Worse, never experiencing the joy of mastering anything.

    For me having fun first has the most lasting learning curve. Having fun almost guarantees engagement. Especially if challenging yourself to reach the next level is part of the fun.

    All three roads can lead to mastery and have unique strengths that can play against each other. The specialist and the cross trainer can learn from each other, all the while challenging each other and having fun.

  40. Rob says:

    Having coached in the States for a number of years each year at the under 10 age group in boys soccer you would see a drop out of the talented players to go a start playing football. The skills they had learned from years of practicing soccer dribbling a ball for hours in and out of people would then help them to become great runners with the ball at football.

    Similar a Women’s team I coached in England had a really talented rugby players and her movement and changing direction was exceptional compared to any other player in the league as see was able to do this much faster to go around players from the time she had spent on a rugby field.

    At the lower end I feel it is import that players get to enjoy sport no matter what their ability is. The more sports they try and love the more chance they are likely to find one they will continue playing when they get older. Hopefully through the love of the game that has been created at a young age they will take up coaching, referring or helping run clubs.

  41. Katie says:

    What about non sport specialization? Do you have any thoughts about violin, for example? We have our 4 and 5 year old boys taking lessons, participating in group classes, listening to recordings, and practicing almost daily. Are kids who start young prone to injury?

    The culture of the Suzuki program encourages consistency and looks down upon taking significant breaks (like summer vacation). Diversifying among instruments is not encouraged either.

    Does anyone have any experience taking breaks or trying out several instruments (switching, not just playing two or three at once!)?

  42. BJ says:

    Terry Liskevich coached the 1996 USA Women to Olympic Silver in volleyball. He told a group of us that of the 16 players who trained for the final Olympic team, 12 were multiple sport athletes IN COLLEGE. The other four didn’t make the team. We asked, were they good because they played multiple sports, or did they play multiple sports because they were good?

    It’s not that simple; he said they work together. You play more sports because you’re a good athlete (as a kid) and you get better as an athlete because you play multiple sports all along.

    Seems simple to me.

  43. David says:

    I am not so sure why they are mutually exclusive. You could say my boys specialize in a sport but also participate in other sports (e.g. specialize in soccer, still play basket ball in the winter and swim team in the summer). They all played football a few seasons.

    Most of the examples supporting the original post I take with a grain of salt. For example, woman that 25 years ago gave the example of playing lots of sports and then picks up golf in high school and then played in college. Sorry, you were competing against maybe 200 other women in your state and you were probably above average athlete to begin with. For folks that make the transition into a sport like track and field. Yeah, the best athlete will excel.

    If you think anyone outside of the truly exceptional athlete is going to play and excel in a widely popular and highly technical sport like baseball or soccer is crazy. For the person that stated they were upset the “elite team” soccer coach would not take a kid after taking a season off because they were too far behind – well for a lot of kids playing at the top of their local level requires a significant time commitment – or specialization. Some can come back, but most can’t keep up.

    For the folks that think this impacts youth participation. I think what impacts participation (and self esteem) is the lack of parents going in the yard and teaching their kids how to shoot a basketball, throw a football, or kick a soccer ball. Most of the complainers I run into are full of moms and dads that stay inside all day and don’t consider spending time with their kids a positive and fun activity they look forward too. It is amazing how good most kids would seem at sports their parents spent a half hour a day.

  44. Stuart Armstrong says:

    Hi Dan,

    Wow, what a debate you have caused! Who would have thought that this subject would get people so riled up? Actually I can believe at all too readily sadly enough as I am working in Rugby and see this kind of thing on a daily basis.

    This is actually a moral argument as it raises questions that relate to the best way for us to bring up our children. Some think that they need to provide opportunity and put investment into their children from an early age to give their kids the best chance in life. Others are fearful that this approach will have the opposite effect in the long run as a generation of ‘pushy parents’ sees a generation of kids fall out of love with a sport that they have been doing for too long.

    Within rugby we have researched this area as we have a major problem with kids leaving the sport between the ages of 16 and 24 and we have discovered that the earlier kids start playing the more likely they are to drop out. We also discovered that the main reasons for drop out relate to burnout due to boredom or the attraction of other sport which suggest to us that the varied diet of sport for as late as possible is very important. We are working very hard to ensure that our talent selection systems are now starting much later (i.e. post maturation) so that we keep windows open to kids who have great athletic ability and drop out of other sports. From our perspective we hope the other sports keep going with their early specialisation models as we may well benefit long term!

    Much of the problem stems from the fact that kid’s sport has become big business. The weight of evidence in support of the late specialisation model (see this link for some more http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130423172601.htm) is pretty heavy and yet people are still finding spurious arguments in support of it…why…because their livelihoods depend on it!

    The problem is that every time we get an elite star that came from a early specialised background that this is presented as the case for this model, the media love to report this and it then takes on a bit of a folk following as a story. What nobody will consider is the 100′s of kids that did the same but didn’t make it and dropped out. It comes down to a straight trade off…the odd elite star and the risk of large scale drop out or a healthy sport full of lifelong participants and the promise of more elite stars as a happy by product.

    The challenge for sports administrators is that we try to use research and logic to strengthen our argument but we are fighting against a powerful triumvirate of the hard line opinions of a commercial industry fueled by parents who are emotionally attached to the futures of their children which is in turn powered by the media’s delight in a romantic story of the ‘boy or girl done good’ by trying hard from early childhood.

    I am fearful that the only way that this super tanker can be turned around will be be when it is too late….

  45. MdM says:

    Katie, my daughter takes Suzuki piano lessons, and I’m a professional guitarist. Early specialization is required if you want to be a professional classical musician. You can’t play around with piano, violin, and trumpet and decide you want to dedicate yourself to one of them at 16. You more or less need to be on the train by 4-10. There might be a few exceptions.

    However, that’s a very demanding and claustrophobic niche and should probably be interest-led. Only a handful of people will be financially rewarded for the incredible amount of work that is required. Generally speaking musicians have spent far more time at their craft than doctors or lawyers but get paid more on the order of waiters or bartenders.

    For us, we started piano early but also want to encourage singing, guitar, and perhaps dance. We don’t aspire to the virtuoso niche but rather to a broad spread of possibilities. At some point, she’ll probably gravitate toward something, but a singing pianist or guitarist who can dance simply has more options.

    That being said, I do wonder at the trend to demonize parents who actively guide their children. We are “helicopter” or “pushy” parents. Apparently one should allow our consumeristic, cradle-to-grave marketing society and simple randomness to raise our children.

  46. Mike Horan says:

    I think it is important that we make distinctions between sports (or activities). There are some sports that obviously require early specialization. Gymnastics is the perfect example. When the Olympic team is made up of mostly teenagers obviously waiting until 14 to specialize is going to put an athlete behind the 8-ball for making the Olympic team.

    However, most other sports do not require that sort of specialization. Most other sports will see athletes peak in their 20′s. All sports require sport specific skills and general athleticism. Baseball requires more skill and less athleticism, track and field requires more athleticism and less skill.

    What are the goals of youth sports; health, status, college scholarships, life skills, teamwork, fun…

    We know early specialization and repeating the same movements over and over is definitely increasing the likelihood of catastrophic and overuse injuries. Torn ACL’s, Tommy John’s, stress fractures…

    Stuart makes a great point about money in the different games. I have long thought that one reason track and field struggles to engage athletes as compared with soccer is that so many people make their livelihood off soccer. Many facilities, clubs, etc. have full time people who make their living on youth soccer. Other than college coaches (to some extent running specialty stores) I can’t think of anyone who makes a living on youth track and field in my area.

    If a coach makes his living by hosting camps and managing 4 teams his goal is going to be to fill his camps and teams. Maybe there are some elite kids in the program, but there is no way that all of the teams are filled with college bound “elite” soccer players. Many of those players are there to have fun, improve, spend time with friends AND they happen to help pay the coach’s bills. Those coaches are running a business and the players and parents are their customers. They are attempting to persuade their customers to be loyal by “selling” them on college scholarships, elite development, visibility at “showcases”.

    I coach distance runners. I think for many kids playing youth soccer is a great way to prepare for high school distance running. The problem is that many kids that are average soccer kids get sold on the year-round soccer.

    Question for elite coaches? If you have an average swimmer/volleyballer/soccer player with obvious skills/tools in another area (distance running/jumping/power) would you encourage them to leave your sport? Or to try another sport? It would obviously be in the kids best interest, but potentially not in the best interest of your business?

  47. Greg says:

    All Parents should read the next two sentences. Most likely your kid won’t make it to the collegiate level in a sport. And the thought of your kid playing a sport and getting paid to do it just freaking crazy. The numbers are against you.

    I have seen plenty of kids being around swimming for the last 7 years. I will say this, usually the kid will tell you by their actions if they want to do a sport at an elite level.

    I would go with this. From ages 5 to at most 9 have the kid try as many sports as they want. Then around 9-11 start getting serious. Some intense lessons can catch a kid up at 11.

    But lastly just ask the kid what he/she wants to do. Keep a close eye on them to see if the have the passion/fire. If they do find the best coach around. Then you might have something. In the end the kid has to live and die the sport to be special. It is OK if they just want to play at a lower level.

    Just take it as far as the kid wants to go with it.

    Lastly and most importantly know how tall the kid will be. If you can predict that then you can steer them to the right sport.

  48. Sam says:

    I appreciate all these comments and agree with some of the arguments on either side. The way to organize sports and talent has a lot to do with it. Sports that require lots of technical skill versus sports that may involve general physical talent. Golf, tennis then maybe soccer are very technical. Track and field not as much.
    Practice likely achieves results but only if done correctly and very regularly. My son plays golf all year but only gets better when playing at least twice a week.
    Anybody that thinks you can skip at soccer is deluding themselves, it’s a struggle to keep a position at an elite club. But in individual sports you can more easily drop into new sports.
    In the end, the kid needs to be having fun and very few will ever get anywhere professionally.

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