Specialization – An Evil Word?

I read a lot online about youth sports and all of the problems like helicopter parents (not just an issue in sports, by the way), irrational coaches, organizations with god complexes, and more. The one that keeps jumping at me, however, is the issue of young kids specializing too early in one sport.

The “complaint” is that kids are picking (or being pushed into, depending on what you read) one sport and then spending all year working at that sport, rather than playing other sports during the “off-season.” I use that term loosely because, in reality, there is no longer such a thing. Every sport is now offered year-round, with traditionally outdoor sports being conducted in indoor facilities during winter months and indoor sports just staying indoors. My son plays in ice rinks, which, in the dead of winter, can be miserable when the temperature is the same inside and out. However, in the summer, it is often a relief to head inside the cool facility to escape the blistering heat (the issue of clothing notwithstanding – I keep long pants, wool socks, and a jacket in my car all summer, but, then again, who doesn’t?).

If a player wants to, he or she can play the selected sport all year and never branch out or try other sports. As this trend has increased, so has the backlash against it. If you do a quick Internet search on “youth sports specialization” you will find a list of articles and blogs discussing the topic (see this MomsTeam article as an example, but there are many more).

I get it. I understand that different sports test different muscles, increase a child’s way of thinking about the game, and teach new skills. I have been a multi-sport athlete all of my life – soccer, basketball, some dabbling in softball, track, crew, soccer again – and I have learned a lot from participating in all of them. I also was never a top-level athlete, so I wasn’t really looking to “make it big” or spend all my time playing one sport.

Where I have my issue with this whole discussion is that it is most often addressed dogmatically (kids should not specialize and, if they do, it is the parents fault). I really dislike dogma, in any form, because I believe that there is almost always a gray area – two sides of an issue (or more), different ways to look at something. In this case, the other side of the issue of specialization is the child’s interests.

My son played soccer when he was 5 until about 8 years old. He wanted to play because my husband and I play and he wanted a uniform like we had (that was the initial reason he gave, at least). Around 8, he discovered ice-skating and fell in love with the idea of playing hockey. He was able to start playing at a roller hockey rink while taking ice lessons and he quickly gave up soccer and focused on hockey. He played hockey in the fall, winter, and spring at that point – he did not play any other sports again until he was 11, when he tried a season of lacrosse (while still playing spring hockey). That experiment was not a good one and he again focused solely on hockey (now adding summer ice time into the mix) for the next two years.

Look! It's not hockey.

Look! It’s not hockey.

He has now added lacrosse back into his spring season and is enjoying it this time, but he continues to play hockey year-round. Why? Because he LOVES it! He is happier on the ice than anywhere else and simply wants to be there. He plays on a spring hockey tournament team in addition to taking private lessons and he will have ice time again this summer. And that is where he wants to be. Is he specializing? I suppose so. But is it because of pressure to do so and a fear of falling behind and not making the top teams? Or because we (his parents) insist upon it for our own egos? No. And I don’t say that as a delusional parent – I would be happy to not spend the money on extra lessons and spring seasons.

It is because he wants to do it and goes into a form of “withdrawal” if he is away from the ice for too long. Seriously – we have small goals and hockey pads all over this house and if he is away from the rink for too long, he gets into those pads and starts playing around in the basement or his room.

So while I understand the arguments for multi-sports kids, I do chafe at the notion that every instance of specialization is fraught with negatives and obviously instigated by overzealous parents and/or coaches. Sometimes it is child-led and sometimes driven by a passion for the sport that can only be satisfied by playing that sport.

So play. For the love of the sport. The best reason ever.

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