The executive director for US Youth Soccer, Jim Cosgrove, was interviewed for an article for the May issue of SportsEvents Magazine on the issue of kids specializing in one sport -- and sometimes a single position – at a very young age (8-13). I think you’ll be interested in the questions and comments.
1. Are you seeing a lot of kids specializing in one sport at an early age? If so, has this been increasing, decreasing or stayed about the same over the past few years?
JC: Yes there are children being asked to specialize in one sport and even one position early in their careers. My educated estimation is that the number of kids specializing early has increased over the last five years as participation in youth sports has increased over that time.
2. If you are seeing this trend, why do you think it is happening?
JC: The trend occurs because parents and/or coaches believe it will accelerate the youngster’s development. They use examples from individual sports such as golf or gymnastics where early specialization can be appropriate and they apply that model to team sports. All team sports are classified as long-term development sports, so children should not specialize in only one sport until perhaps the late teenage years.
3. What do you consider to be the pros and cons of early specialization in sports?
JC: I cannot think of any pros to early specialization. The cons include poor athletic development, over-use injuries, emotional exhaustion and psychosocial burn-out. The too much-too soon syndrome also causes a jaded attitude toward the sport to develop by the mid to late teens.
4. At what age is specialization a good thing?
JC: Sports specialize too early in an attempt to attract and retain participants. 17-years-old and beyond is appropriate for specialization in a single sport. For soccer, position versatility is still important even at this age and especially for field players.
5. Can you provide some common sense recommendations to parents (and kids) who may believe that by focusing on one sport at a young age they will get college scholarships or become professional athletes?
JC: Approximately 2% of youth soccer players will earn a college scholarship to play soccer. Let your child play soccer to his or her content without an expectation for the big payoff of an athletic scholarship – there’s much more money available for academic scholarships than athletic ones.
In conclusion, sports can be classified as either early or late specialization. Early specialization sports include artistic and acrobatic sports such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. These differ from late specialization sports in that very complex skills are learned before maturation since they cannot be fully mastered if taught after maturation.
Most other sports are late specialization sports. However, all sports should be individually analyzed using international and national normative data to decide whether they are early or late specialization. If physical literacy is acquired before maturation, athletes can select a late specialization sport when they are between the ages of 12 and 15 and have the potential to rise to international stardom in that sport.
Specializing before the age of 10 in late specialization sports contributes to:
• One-sided, sport-specific preparation
• Lack of ABC’s, the basic movement and sports skills
• Overuse injuries
• Early burnout
• Early retirement from training and competition
For late specialization sports, specialization before age 10 is not recommended since it contributes to early burnout, dropout and retirement from training and competition (Harsanyi, 1985).