Let them play: Avoid sport specialization in youth

Let them play: Avoid sport specialization in youth

In the last 15ish years, it’s become a thing for many parents to allow and/or encourage their children to specialize in a specific sport at an early age.  The sport choice may be because a parent excelled at the sport, coaches the sport, loves watching the sport, or because the child showed a lot of promise at that sport at an early age.  I have a problem with this, no matter which scenario applies.  I’m not a physician, a coach, or a sports psychologist, so I have no authority.  But I’ve been playing organized sports for about 30 years now, and I’ve noticed a thing or two.

Youth sport specialization isn’t a new phenomenon…it just seems like its more prevalent and preferred these days.  When I was growing up, plenty of kids took gymnastics or dance classes starting as a toddler.  It’s one of the first activities that kids can learn easily because it includes full body movement instead of fine motor skills of some other sports.  It also is more like play…who doesn’t like somersaults?  I have a vague memory of taking some informal gymnastics classes with several kids…perhaps even in someone’s basement (At Kliners? Family…am I making this up?).  We actually have Jenson in gymnastics right now and he loves it.  It’s only been a month, but his coordination and balance have improved greatly already.  Do I want him to be an elite gymnast?  Nope…not only is it unlikely due to his genetics (kids do “grow out” of gymnastics), but to be elite, it requires long, dedicated practices that are hard on developing bodies.  I have some friends who can attest to that personally.  But most importantly, he probably won’t want to.

Swimming is probably the earliest activity though – some start swimming classes soon after birth, and they progress through different levels as they grow and learn.  It’s an excellent choice because of the obvious safety benefits regarding water (the world has a lot of water) and it seems that the younger kids learn how to swim, the easier it is for them – before they become afraid or have a bad experience with water.  Soccer is another first sport for many, as kids can start as young as 3.  It’s very likely the next sport that Jenson will try if he wants.  T-ball is another common first.  These are both great because they require body coordination plus a ball, and teammates.  At this level, no parent should worry about how well their child is doing (so sit down, shut up, and smile when they look at you from the sidelines – even if they suck).  You should worry about whether they are having fun.  If they aren’t, encourage them to finish out the session (if it’s tolerable), take a break, and try something new.  When they are older, if they want to try it again, let them.  Bodies change, comfort levels change, maturity changes, and interest changes.


jenson tee ballLet them play many sports.  Let them change their minds on their preferred sports as they grow and develop.  I would love it if every kid had the opportunity to be exposed to at least 3 organized sports leagues or activities by the time they were in middle school.  Its not that easy for many due to time, money, and access to these, but there’s nothing from stopping you from playing sports regularly in your yard or at the playground.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know “how” to play or don’t have the skills….I’m pretty sure your 4 year old won’t care if you aren’t good, but seeing you try and learning alongside of you could make a huge difference in their interest.  Jenson got a T-ball set for his birthday and loves playing in the front yard with his dad (or me).  Lo set up “bases” (a tree and some rocks), and per Jenson’s rules, when one of them hits the ball, they both run the bases…and then Jenson picks up the football, spikes it, and does a touchdown dance.

My experience

Neither of my parents played sports in school (or at least not regularly), but they had 6 athletic daughters who tried and often excelled at multiple sports (we all had strengths and weaknesses).  We didn’t play in expensive leagues growing up – we couldn’t afford that and there weren’t many options in our area, but we played sports and were active outside all. of. the. time.  Badmitten, kickball, basketball, riding bikes, races, volleyball, freezetag, cartoon tag, football, gymnastics, tennis, softball…you name it, we probably did it (except soccer…I don’t think we ever played soccer).  It helps if you have enough kids to sport a whole team and plenty of space to play like my family, but it’s not impossible – there’s probably a park within a 10 minutes drive.  As far as organized sports, we only did what was easily available to our family.  Most of us started with softball (around age 6 for me) with the community summer softball program, and that was pretty much our only organized sport until school sports in junior high.  We also ran races, but that was more of dad just saying “we’re doing the Johnny Appleseed Festival 5k tomorrow” and not so much of training for them.  I’m pretty sure I hated running races from my first race (probably around age 6), but I continued to try.  A few of my sisters excelled at them for years, and one of them even held the 2 mile high school track record for awhile.  Once we were in junior high, we played volleyball, basketball, and track for the school, and played softball in the summer league.  Our school was small, so if you played one sport, you were probably good enough to be on the team for all of them.  As we got older, most of us dropped at least one of the sports at one time or another.  My parents never forced us to play, but it was encouraged and supported (at least after the oldest joined a team without permission when she was in junior high).  But you could be damn sure we weren’t going to be allowed to goof off while playing or quit in the middle of a season by that age – whether we didn’t like the coach, didn’t get to play as much as our parents thought, or wanted to do something else instead.  And through 6 daughters and about 18 years of sports, my parents rarely missed a game, despite having multiple games in multiple schools for much of that time (middle school and high school) – they were as much committed to it as we were.

These days, by 7th grade its not uncommon for kids to already be specializing in a specific sport.  And by specialize, I mean travel teams, summer leagues, year-round specific training for that sport, and very little – if any, exposure to other sports.  If I would have been encouraged to choose one sport by middle school, my choice would have been basketball, and I wouldn’t have ended up playing volleyball and running track.  I was obsessed with basketball and played constantly…at home, recess, friend’s homes…wherever.   I played one on one, two on two, horse, and around the world against my sisters and dad one a nearly daily basis.  We’d shoot around for hours in our driveway, learning early on not to airball it because it rolled down the hill in the yard.  (Side note: if you want your kid to be good at ball handling, have them play in a gravel driveway, lol). I was good at basketball in junior high (and so were my sisters), so at the first day of practice for 7th grade basketball, the coach (who also coached a few sisters) said “Val will be point guard” – which is kind of crazy to just hand that to me, but that’s how small-town sports work sometimes.  (Don’t even get me started on focusing on a single position within a sport before kids develop – that’s a whole separate post).  I was one of the better ball handlers by far at that point (see: gravel driveway), but by high school, I was taller (though not tall) and not as quick as some others, didn’t have a great outside shot (poor form), but I could jump and was great at passing, drawing fouls, and defense, so playing small forward (wing, as we called it) or underneath made more sense.  I was still good and I started, and our team was very good, but I wasn’t the best and wouldn’t have been good enough to play in college at a scholarship level.

But also by early high school – which is when I grew and developed – I was in love with volleyball and truly excelling there.  So you see?  Had I been forced/allowed to commit to one sport by junior high, I wouldn’t have found the sport that I truly loved and excelled at.  I was very good at volleyball – our team went to State or Regionals almost every year – and I was named an All-Ohio, All-District, All-County, All-League player my senior year.  Unfortunately by the end of the season, I also had a partially torn rotator cuff (which actually started from a basketball injury the previous year), and that prevented me from playing basketball my senior year.  I was still offered a non-scholarship spot (due to the injury) on the volleyball team for YSU, under a coach I desperately wanted to play for.  However, my sports doctor refused to do surgery, or at least get it covered by insurance, and the physical therapy wasn’t very successful.  I wasn’t cleared to play for the university by my physical therapist before the season started, and gave up my spot on the team.  The coach said I could come back the following year if I healed, but I wasn’t fully healed for several years later until a different Dr. found the initial issue (scapula impingement) and corrected it.  I’m still bitter about that because it was actually the same sports med place, but just a different doctor.  But I kept playing volleyball in leagues through adulthood, and nearly 20 years after high school and 2 babies later, I still play at least once a week for much of the year.  My skills have changed – I’m not a power hitter anymore – but I’m good enough to play in top-level leagues still. I’m a smarter and versatile player, and I’m one of the better defensive players in the leagues (this is according to my teammates and other players…I’ve only recently started to admit that because I’m hard on myself).  Again, if I would have been encourage to stick to basketball only, maybe I would have been a little better at basketball, but I probably wouldn’t have been as good as I became at volleyball, and I probably wouldn’t still be playing to this day.

Obviously this is just my experience, and there are exceptions to this.  I know a family whose sons played hockey starting at a very young age.  They were fully dedicated and spent a lot of time and money – and if you know anything about hockey, you know that its expensive, it requires a ton of travel, and often kids living away from home while they play at the higher youth levels.  It paid off for these kids – one is successful in the NHL and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the younger one is in the future.  But for every family like this, there are thousands of families who try to have kids specialize so they can get college scholarships or play professionally some day – and instead their sports careers end after high school due to injury or burnout – or because they just never excelled as much as their parents expected.

So let them play – anything, everything within reach of your family – and if they hate it all, let them focus on something else….art, writing, tech stuff, hopefully they have some sort of passion.  Maybe they are just average at everything at this point – who cares…just love them.  Maybe they just haven’t found their niche yet.  There is so much more living for them to do after high school.  I have such fond memories of sports in school, and I’m glad that I played several rather than potentially being 10% better at one specific sport.  Your kids aren’t going to look back on their life and wish they would have been a little better at a specific sport in high school.  Hopefully they’ll look back and see that they’ve had a happy life thanks to parents who supported and encouraged them.

jenson football

Leave a Reply