Over the 32 years I have been in practice as a sport psychologist, I have discussed a wide variety of topics with clients. During this time, I have seen athletes of all ages. The youngest was an eight-year old gymnast, who came in with her mother, with a two-page list of goals she wanted to accomplish. The oldest was an 82-year old female golfer. When I asked her why she wanted to work with me, she stated, “It’s very simple, my putting sucks!” The topics and issues have ranged from everything from personal performance issues, to communication issues with coaches and teammates, as well as what age is appropriate to start competing. Over the past several years, I have noticed had numerous conversations with parents and coaches about not only when should a child begin competitive sports, but also when should they begin specializing in one sport.
I am 58 years old and grew up in an era where athletes went from one sport to another during the year. Most of my friends in junior high and high school would typically compete in football and cross country in the fall, basketball and wrestling in the winter and baseball and track in the spring. Sports like tennis, golf and swimming were seasonal as well, although the construction of indoor tennis clubs opened the door for year round play. Youth sports were not very well developed at that time, and you would have to look around to find a youth team to compete on. Obviously, today everything has changed. Almost every sport has competitions for young athletes. Leagues in almost every team sport exist all the way down to 8 year olds and sometimes younger, and exist in many cases year round. I have discussed this in several previous newsletters. However, one issue that has become more of a concern over the past several years has been the pressure to specialize in one sport at earlier and earlier ages.
During my career, I have had the privilege to have worked with and spoken to some of the greatest athletes and coaches in their respective sports. I have learned so much from these individuals about their successes and failures and I have documented much of this. In the early 1980’s, I was the University of Kansas’s first sport psychologist and got to spend time getting to know the men’s basketball coach, Larry Brown. He told me something that has stuck with me and influenced a lot of what I share with young athletes and their parents. He told me that he believed athletes should participate in both individual and team sports for several years growing up. He felt that individual sports teach a great deal about self-confidence and team sports teach about sharing, communication and camaraderie. Very simple and straightforward, but so true.
Over the past few years, I have had numerous parents and athletes ask me what age is the appropriate age to specialize in just one sport. Obviously, to be successful at several sports like gymnastics and figure skating, you have to begin at a relatively young age and train year round. However, more and more I am hearing about young athletes younger than 10 deciding to just focus on one sport. Many parents have told me that the pressure to play one sport year round is more pronounced because if you don’t, you won’t have a chance to be competitive enough to make an elite team, and consequently, will not be good enough to play in high school or beyond. Yes, it is true that if you train year round at just one sport you will have an opportunity to have superior skills. But, what guarantees are there that they will continue to be successful, as they get older. Medical research is showing more and more injuries to athletes at younger ages because of over use. Tommy John surgery is now being performed on some athletes who are not yet teenagers because of overuse. By specializing in just one sport, are you limiting your child from the experiences that they could be having with different groups of friends. And what about sport burnout? Despite what many claim, it exists and I believe it is becoming more prominent at younger ages.
So what age is the best to specialize? I think it is a sport specific question, but I think by the time most kids are 12 to 13, they will have decided what sport they like the most and which sport they will want to focus on. Before that age, let them play and experience different sports, both individual and team oriented. I believe they will learn more about themselves and in the end have more fun, which is what sports should be about for kids.