All too often in today’s world of youth athletics, sport specialization can create what’s meant to be a fun and purposeful activity into a highly competitive and stressful situation for the kids, parents, and coaches alike. With the idea of a college scholarship down the road, and the glory and pride associated with winning, many parents may succumb to the pressure of having their child specialize at a very young age in one particular sport.
“At some point a parent decided ‘why not just fast-track our kids right past Little League and Pop Warner and right into the Pros.’ Parents in all sports felt they could follow the lead of Earl Woods (Tiger’s dad), or Richard Williams (Venus and Serena’s dad) and just concentrate on one sport. I love to tell parent groups that I speak to that for every Tiger Woods or Venus Williams there are probably 5000 kids who hate sports and resent their parents for all the pressure.”
– Michael Boyle, World-Renowned Strength & Conditioning Coach
As a trainer, parents approach me to ask for sport-specific training for their 10 year old (or even younger!) to help them gain that competitive edge against their peers. Unfortunately, it has become something all too common, and can ultimately lead to a number of negative outcomes including overuse injuries, psychological stress, and withdrawal from sports entirely.
In an ideal world, I prefer to see kids develop a wide range of athletic skills at least until the age of 12 or 13. I consider the age range of 8-12 to be the Golden Era of Athletic Skill Development. This is the time when kids likely have not hit puberty yet, and have not begun their biggest growth spurt—both of which can lead to a temporary loss of coordination and motor control.
In order to develop the best overall athlete you must provide the best chance for you child to learn a wide range of important motor patterns that apply across many sports. It is necessary to expose him or her to a variety of athletic situations during this critical time. Furthermore, by avoiding the huge psychological stress and pressure of single sport participation, kids are more likely to enjoy the process of training and competing, and to learn that their self-esteem is not entirely based in the outcomes of their matches or games.
The most important overall message to the parents reading this: do not succumb to the societal pressures to put your child through early sport specialization. As we move forward, the evidence of the negative effects of early specialization continues to outweigh the positive effects. A number of athletes and coaches have spoken up to shed light on the topic (think Alex Morgan, Jordan Spieth, Russell Wilson, John Elway, and Steve Nash, just to name a few). Remember that for every one child that succeeds at the highest level, thousands of others end up dropping out due to injury or disinterest.
TRAINER TIP: Kids can safely participate in strength training as early as age 7-8. However, they must be able to handle their own body weight first, and must also be closely monitored for technique. Start with bodyweight exercises and then safely progress to resistance bands and light medicine balls. Focus on keeping reps between 12-15.