By Chris Stankovich, Ph.D.
Have you ever stopped and wondered whatever happened to the three-sport letter winner? In the “old” days of athletics (really only a few years ago), many student-athletes successfully played multiple sports, leading to the achievement of earning multiple varsity letters in high school. Interestingly, a new trend has emerged today where the multiple varsity letter winner has become an antiquated image of the past, and instead been replaced with the “sport specialist” who plays one sport exclusively.
Coaches today are faced with a challenging task when it comes to sport specialization vs. sport sampling, as many kids they face this decision and will likely solicit their coaches for advice. Some student-athletes will ask the coach directly for input, while others will make the decision on their own, using what they think the coach would like them to do as their biggest factor in the decision. Parents, for the most part, are also confused when it comes to this question, and as a result often turn to the coach as well with the hope that the decision will be made easier with his or her advice.
When it comes to the question of sport specialization, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” answer, unfortunately. Instead, there are many pros and cons to consider. It is a decision that should be given ample time to work through until a sensible and responsible decision is made. Since many families have never had to process this decision before, it is imperative that coaches learn about the advantages and disadvantages of sport specialization so they may help in the decision-making process.
Advantages of Sport Specialization
As with just about every venture in life, the more you do something, the more skilled you are likely to become. Sport specialization allows student-athletes to play their chosen sport more frequently, and for longer periods of time, often resulting in faster and more advanced athletic skill development. While the net result of how much a child specializing in one sport improves compared to other children playing multiple sports is certainly debatable, in most cases the child who specializes does advance with athletic skill acquisition at a faster pace when compared to other children who do not specialize in one sport.
Some typical advantages of sport specialization include:
- more games and practices leading to faster muscle memory, specific physical and skills development, and a greater level of comfort and confidence while playing;
- different competition from diverse backgrounds and geographic regions, leading to many exciting life development experiences;
- greater diversity in coaching as kids usually have different coaches throughout the year offering their expertise and mentoring;
- greater exposure to junior high, high school and sometimes even college coaches; and
- more opportunities to review and refine athletic skills so that they can become mastered at an earlier age.
Disadvantages of sport specialization
On the other hand, sport specialization can also come with some costs. Probably the biggest concern with sport specialization is the increased risk for youth sport burnout, often resulting in poor coping skills in response to the increased pressure and stress associated with playing sports at a high level. Keep in mind that the No. 1 reason why kids play sports is to have fun, and in cases of sport specialization, it is easy to see that the enormous amount of time and energy devoted to one sport can easily offset the fun, and instead make the sport look a lot more like a job and a lot less like a recreational activity.
Some typical disadvantages of sport specialization include:
- difficulties balancing the time commitments playing the sport with school, activities and other responsibilities;
- missing critical periods to learn and develop skills needed for other sports if the student-athlete later wants to try a different sport (this is especially dangerous when kids begin to specialize before the age of 10);
- missing an opportunity to identify hidden talents the student-athlete might have for another sport; and
- losing intrinsic motivation to play the sport, resulting in staleness, lethargy and possibly youth sport burnout.
Interestingly, while some coaches believe an athlete must specialize to be the best athlete he or she can be, other coaches think sport specialization actually hinders athletic development, and that kids would increase their athletic skills more rapidly by sampling several different sports throughout the year. The thinking around sport sampling is that different sports develop different skills, muscles, abilities, and even mindsets – all leading the student-athlete to become a better and more complete competitor.
As a coach, it is important today to examine the question of sport specialization versus sport sampling so that you will be equipped to help kids and their families with this decision. Below are a few additional tips to consider when offering your advice:
- Make sure families know the realities of playing college and pro sports. The odds of “making it” are remote if you look at the statistics, regardless of specialization or sampling, so make sure parents know the facts and are not basing their decision solely for this reason.
- Check to see if the child wants to specialize. Sadly, in some instances it is the parents who push for this, not the child. When this occurs you can usually predict that there will be problems ahead.
- Talk about the sport experiences the child has had to date, and examine if he or she has had opportunities to sample other sports. If not, it may behoove the family to continue sampling before deciding to specialize.
- Talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of this decision with parents and their kids, as it is likely the information you share with them will be new and of great value in the decision-making process.
- Support the family as best you can, and be open to questions and further discussions – even after the decision about sport specialization versus sampling has been made.
About the Author: Dr. Chris Stankovich is a sport psychology consultant and an advocate for positive youth sport development. For more information on educational products, seminars, or professional consultation please visit www.drstankovich.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.