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Are kids specializing in sports too early?

 
 

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Where did specialization come from?
- Dr. Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hours rule, which wasn’t intended for athletics
- Adults often influence the decision to specialize

Specialized Specialists
- Specializing within a sport compounds potential problems
- Playing multiple positions could make athletes better at higher levels of competition

Effects on health
- Specialization in some sports can lead to clinical injury risks
- It’s important to monitor training volume and ensure players have an offseason

Benefits of sampling
- Sampling is a term for playing multiple sports
- Sampling has multiple benefits, including potential for better results as players get older
- Players and adults are often tempted by short-term results of specialization

College Soccer
- Seven in 10 Olympic athletes said they played multiple sports growing up
- College coaches generally do not prefer athletes who specialize in soccer

The Best Compromise
- Specialized soccer players should experience significant amounts of free play
- Free play can produce greater creativity and keep players’ passion for the game


As he wraps up a session with his personal trainer, John hurries to the car and quickly hops in to make it to training on time.

With the car stopped at a red light, he glances at his coach’s practice notes and eats a spoonful of Greek yogurt — just a few berries on top because he’s focusing on his fitness. When the car finally pulls up to the soccer field, he grabs his gear from the trunk and hurries to join the rest of the team.

Before he can get 10 steps from the car, he hears someone shout his name. John hastily turns around and jogs back to the car, where he gives his mom a kiss before she reminds him to ask coach for an excusal note for the upcoming tournament to give to his fifth-grade teacher.

That scene may sound extreme, but it’s becoming far too common for children’s dreams of being professional athletes to become a reality before they even reach their teens. Kids are beginning to specialize in one sport with the end goal of earning a college scholarship and hopefully playing professionally.

The year-round focus on a single sport forces kids to drop any other athletic pursuits they may enjoy in order to master their “main sport.” And the most startling thing is the decisions that shape their childhood and youth sports careers often aren’t made by the kids.

WHERE DID SPECIALIZATION COME FROM?

Many people contribute the rise of early sport specialization to the popularity of a theory by Dr. Anders Ericsson, which said it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. With that rule in mind, youth athletes have started to focus on one sport in hopes of reaching an elite level by high school and college — even though Ericsson’s original work was intended for musicians, mathematicians and chess players, rather than athletes.

An article by Brad Ferguson and Paula Stern, of the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, said before the age of 10, kids are “typically not psychologically mature to understand the importance, responsibility, commitment and ramifications of year round training in sport.” Instead, they found coaches are often first to see a young player as gifted and recommend specialization in a single sport.

But before coaches or parents accept Ericsson’s theory as fact, Dr. Matt Bowers suggests they think of all possible outcomes of specialization.

“Think about playing a piano. If you had your kid playing the same note on the piano for 10,000 hours, that’s not necessarily going to make him or her an expert in playing the piano,” Bowers said. “That’s the worry with specialization — if you are so focused from a young age, it’s going to lead to some potential complications later on. Burnout leading to dropout, potentially.”

US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching Sam Snow has seen the trend of youth players specializing in the sport at earlier ages. He couldn’t give an exact percentage, but Snow estimated that as many as a quarter of clubs around the country are pushing kids into specializing in soccer.

That movement comes despite the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model — which aims to increase the level of play across the country while also instilling in players a life-long passion for the game — suggesting adults who want to achieve success in youth sports suffer from “too much too soon syndrome.”

“It could be coaches or clubs are aware that they’re doing this incorrectly and doing it anyway in order to increase revenue streams, or it’s being done out of ignorance,” Snow said. “We have some clubs or organizations around the country that are pushing the kids and families by saying, ‘If you don’t do this now at age 7 or 8 or 9, begin to specialize in soccer and specialize in a position, that somehow or another you’ll be behind the curve.’”

SPECIALIZED SPECIALISTS

Bowers, a clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, has conducted research that focuses on how to develop systems and policies in youth sports to make them work better for kids and also produce better outcomes.

He said athletics in the United States are not only seeing a push for specialization into a certain sport, but also specialization within that sport — using a goalkeeper in soccer as an example. While it may seem logical to believe the more a player focuses on goalkeeping, the better keeper he or she will be, Bowers said that isn’t the case.

“In actuality,” he said, “the more we develop a broad range of soccer skills, the better the keeper is going to be.”

While it’s just one specific example, recent U.S. Soccer goalkeepers have provided evidence that playing multiple positions or multiple sports can result in better performance in goal once players reach the highest level. U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard grew up playing in the midfield, while U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Hope Solo played forward for much of her youth career.

Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla wrote a 2009 article that highlighted Howard, Solo, Tony Meola and Brad Guzan as four U.S. Goalkeepers who each played in the field as youth and high school soccer players, in addition to playing other sports such as basketball, volleyball and baseball.

In the Soccer America article, World Cup-winning coach Tony DiCicco said playing a variety of sports is “very good” for preteen athletes and even athletes in their early teens. DiCicco said that especially applies to goalkeepers, who can benefit from sports like basketball and baseball.

After developing a full range of soccer skills and hand-eye coordination, Howard, Solo, Meola and Guzan each became one of the best players at their position in the world. But Bowers said the tendency for teams to focus on game results rather than development makes it difficult for players to get an opportunity to try multiple positions.

“When you’re focused on winning, even with a group of 8-year-olds, you tend to focus on different things,” Bowers said. “You focus on gaining tactical advantages rather than emphasizing the development of the players. And when you’re focused on tactics, it makes more sense to focus on players staying in specific positions.”

EFFECTS ON HEALTH

As players begin specializing in a certain sport, Dr. Jay Hertel, the Joe Gieck Professor in Sports Medicine at the University of Virginia, said there can be some clinical injury risks. He acknowledged baseball as a sport where year-round training can lead to arm injuries, likely due in large part to the amount of throwing specialized players experience in the course of a season. 

Hertel said soccer doesn’t carry as many injury risks related to overuse, but the bigger concern should be on the training volume of specialized players in the sport. He broke it down into two perspectives — how much a player trains in a given week and how much a player trains over the course of a year. He said it’s important to monitor weekly training volume but also to make sure the player gets a period to rest during the year.

Snow said the stress put on a young body from high amounts of training on a week-to-week and yearly basis can lead to injury risks, in addition to the likelihood of mental fatigue and burnout.

With a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter who each play soccer in addition to other sports, Hertel isn’t totally dismissing the possibility of them specializing in soccer if they desired. But he said he’ll exercise caution if that situation arises.

“I definitely do have concerns about overtraining. If they were to specialize, I would still want them to have an offseason and probably do something else during that time to stay fit,” Hertel said. “I certainly appreciate the fact, that if they have the talents and want to pursue a sport in college, they will need to do that sport for a greater period of time than they’re doing right now.

“On the other side of things, you at least want to make sure they get exposed to more than one sport because over a lifetime that’s important.”

BENEFITS OF SAMPLING

Participating in multiple sports allows athletes to work different muscles groups and have the chance to take part in both anaerobic and aerobic activities, Hertel explained. And the potential benefits playing various sports aren’t limited to health. Bowers said kids who steer away from specialization and practice sampling, a term for trying multiple sports, are less likely to fall into a troubling pattern that has developed among young adults.

“What we’ve seen in the research is that we’re turning sports into work for kids at a really young age,” Bowers said. “And that has long-term ramifications. One of the big problems in this country is that kids stop playing sports after they’re out of school.”

Spec_WorkBowers said sampling allows kids to develop better physically and psychologically, and it makes them more likely to continue playing sports beyond the youth level.

Interestingly, playing multiple sports may also produce better results that will please players, parents and potentially coaches at the highest levels. By allowing soccer players to develop physical literacy and experience different sports — while also staying in touch with soccer — Bowers said those players could see better performance at elite levels of play.

Snow echoed that thought and said kids who play multiple sports through age 13 are more likely to be tactically smart players with the ability to recognize patterns of play. However, it’s often difficult for players, parents and coaches to overlook the potential immediate results of specialization and wait for the long-term benefits of sampling — making early specialization appealing, as even untrained eyes can see quick improvement in the young athletes.

“There’s a good deal of research that shows that, in fact, athletes who participate in what is called deliberate practice — all those scheduled training sessions, the extra fitness sessions, the extra matches and tournaments — will show a short-term increase in improvement over the other kids who don’t,” Snow said. “Five years or 10 years down the road, it’s the other kids who leap past the kids who specialize too soon. All of a sudden, it’s time for college soccer and a lot of those kids who specialize too soon are emotionally and physically done. And the other kids who didn’t specialize early continue on.”

An example of a player who didn’t need to focus solely on one sport to find success is Cheyna Williams. The rising senior at Florida State was the second-leading scorer on the Seminoles’ 2014 NCAA National Champion women’s soccer team and was recently selected to play with the U.S. Under-23 Women’s National Team. But before focusing solely on soccer, Williams tried out several sports while growing up.

“I just remember when I was around 10, I actually played softball for a little while because I was tired of soccer,” Williams said. “So, I took a year or two off from soccer when I was 9 or 10 to play softball to see how much I liked that.”

Williams, who also played basketball and participated in track and field as a kid, returned to soccer and had great success at United Futbol Academy (GA) before moving on to play at soccer at Vanderbilt and Florida State.

While the idea of a 10-year-old Williams sampling different sports seems natural, it’s often difficult for adults to show the patience to allow children to realize what sports they like best. Bowers said he understands the difficulty parents face when pressured to keep their child up to speed with others who start their kids on the perceived tracks to elite levels. However, he said certain ages can only produce so much development, and parents may need to go against the grain to do what is best for their child.

“I think we’re all well-intentioned in wanting our kids to have the best opportunities possible and wanting our National Teams in soccer in the U.S. to develop as well as possible,” Bowers said. “There’s a little bit of a counter intuitive issue, where if we actually slowed them down a little bit and let them do some other things that don’t necessarily seem like the natural approach, we might actually see better results.”

COLLEGE SOCCER

A recent report by The Aspen Institute’s Project Play revealed that seven out of 10 Olympic athletes surveyed by the United States Olympic Committee said they grew up as multisport athletes, and most called it “valuable.”

Snow said it’s those types of athletes who coaches at the collegiate ranks are most interested in when looking for potential players.

“If you talk to college coaches today, and this would be college coaches of any team sports, they’ll all tell you — whether it’s a soccer coach, football coach, basketball coach, doesn’t matter — they’ll all say, ‘We want multiple sport athletes because those are the ones who perform best at the intercollegiate level,’” Snow said.

Spec_7-10 USOCUS Youth Soccer surveyed more than 500 college soccer coaches and asked if they prefer an athlete who played multiple sports. Of the 221 Division I coaches who answered, just 16 — 7 percent — said they would prefer a player who played only soccer and was not a multi-sport athlete.

On the other hand, coaches didn’t overwhelmingly praise multi-sport athletes. Most interviewed by US Youth Soccer said it simply comes down to the players’ soccer ability — backed up by the survey’s overall results that showed 66 percent of coaches didn’t consider playing multiple sports a factor when recruiting players.

Still, there are coaches who see benefits in having a broad athletic background. Chris Watkins, associate head coach for BYU women’s soccer, said in his 19 years with the Cougars, they have had great success with girls who also played basketball — the main athletic option during cold winter months. However, in his time coaching college soccer, he’s seen the number of athletes who play multiple sports fade.

“Nowadays, we just rarely see it and it’s really a shame,” Watkins said. “We certainly would appreciate that. It would add value, as long as they can excel in soccer, of course. I think we value that as a program, for sure. More than one dimension in life is always a good thing.”

The US Youth Soccer survey results did reveal that a majority of college coaches, when asked what age they prefer athletes to specialize, believe kids should wait until their teenage years to focus on one sport.

Nearly 50 percent of college coaches who answered said to wait until the sophomore, junior or senior years of high school. Another 26 percent preferred specialization in 9th grade, while 19 percent said they prefer athletes wait until after high school to focus solely on soccer. Just 8.5 percent of coaches said they would like to see players compete in only soccer during their middle school years.

It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that Williams stopped participating in basketball and track, and she can see some potential benefits they may have derived from playing three sports.

“As far as track goes, I’ll definitely say working on form with running helped me athletically when it came to soccer,” Williams said. “Basketball, the speed of play and being able to transition on the court so quickly may have helped me with soccer.”

The only player with more points than Williams on the 2014 Florida State women’s soccer was Iceland native Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who, like Williams, played basketball as a youth athlete — an example of sampling that is more commonplace in Europe.

Bowers said the structure of European athletics keeps athletes in the game when they get older, as governments provide funding to keep a variety of sports and opportunities available.

Meanwhile, Snow said people often overlook the various options offered at some of Europe’s top soccer clubs.

“Internally in the club, those kids are also playing in the club’s basketball program and judo programming and other cross-training sports,” Snow said. “It just happens to be called Ajax Football Club, but they’re still doing volleyball and basketball and other things inside the club as a part of developing athleticism and avoiding burnout.”

THE BEST COMPROMISESpec_Free Play

The increased specialization and competition in youth sports have made it difficult for kids to bounce from one sport to the next. Both Bowers and Hertel acknowledged that today’s sports landscape may make it necessary for athletes to specialize if they intend to play beyond high school, but each said the focus on a single sport shouldn’t begin until the early teens.

In addition to Hertel’s emphasis on monitoring training volume to mitigate injury risks in specialized athletes, Bowers said players, parents and coaches should also think twice about the format of training. He said informal training, such as pickup games, can be beneficial and produce increased creativity.

Snow stressed the importance of pickup games and free play among youth soccer players, saying it provides a “very healthy environment for the kids.” Free play allows kids to dictate the game, while coaches simply watch from the sidelines for supervision.

If more clubs offered open free play, Snow said it would likely allow them to keep the players in the club for more years and also could end up raising the level of play of all the kids in the club.

And if kids are to specialize, free play could help keep the game fun and give players a greater chance of continuing playing soccer when they become adults. Snow believes, for young players especially, free play should be a big part of their soccer experience.

“Prior to age 12, 50 percent of training should be free play,” Snow said. “Frankly, I’d like free play to be a little higher than 50 percent, but that’s a good ratio to go with.”

While the idea of free play sounds simple enough, coaches and parents often struggle to stay out of the game when at the field. And when managing a game turns into managing a young player’s “career,” it becomes even more difficult for adults to show patience.

Bowers said what seems right in adults’ minds isn’t always correct, and they should think twice before beginning kids on a specialized path because the way adults look at sports and the way children experience them are often different.

“If people do a little bit of digging on their own to think about what’s best for their kid, I think they’ll at the very least have some concerns about specialization as an approach,” Bowers said. “I’m not going to tell anyone that there’s only one way because there’s not. I would just encourage parents to think about their kids as more than just a potential elite athlete and think about what would benefit them in a more holistic way.”

 

Comments

 
Y11_Dad in Charlotte, NC said: This article really rang home for me as a dad facing this "specialialization" decision with my not even 10 year-old son. He really likes soccer, but also wants to do other things (track, football, basketball, etc.). All of these other sports make him more well-rounded and provide benefits such as stamina, dexterity, game-time decision making, etc. Instead, my 9 year-old is left to make this "career" decision rather than just enjoying it (obviously with help/support from my wife and I). So, if we recognize this is not in the best interests of the kids, then what is US Youth Soccer doing about it? The role of a governing body is to make the tough decisions that protects the long-term interests of the game. Seems pretty easy to establish some rules in this area. Step up to the plate USYS!!!!
12 May 2015 at 11:56 AM
 
Jeff in Denver, CO said: One small point - this article could be misleading on the "intent" of the Ericsson work. I have not read other research from him, other than the research paper he published in 1993. My understanding of this paper is that the deliberate practice theory / model was not specific to a particular domain (such as chess or science) but to any domain. In fact, they compared chess, music and sport and the word "sport" appears more than 80 times in the research paper. Google: "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" to find it. Here's some of quotes from the research article. The last two are from the conclusion of the paper. "Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice." "We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice." The domains they referenced in the research were music, chess and sports. "The commitment to deliberate practice distinguishes the expert performer from the vast majority of children and adults who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands on practice in schools, adult education, and in physical exercise programs." Basically people give up on deliberate practice and therefore do not achieve "elite" ability. I do agree that adults should let kids in sports focus on fun and free play, particularly in soccer. For those of us that have highly motivated kids, this article is a reminder to teach our kids to balance across all areas of life.
06 May 2015 at 7:28 PM
 
3SonsMom in Willoughby, OH said: I am so pleased that US Youth Soccer has generated an article about this very important topic. I addressed this problem with US Youth Soccer last fall. I expressed my concern with the director of US Youth Soccer about soccer clubs requiring young players to commit to year long play and not allowing players to simply participate in Fall and/or Spring Soccer. My son's ages are 12, 14, and 17. Over the years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of soccer clubs and soccer venues. The number of indoor soccer facilities with artificial turf fields has increased significantly. Soccer is big business. Soccer Club costs have skyrocketed. Our oldest son who played multiple sports had the option to participate in fall and/or spring soccer. Our youngest son does not have that option. The club that he played for changed their policy whereby all players are required to commit to year long play and parents are required to pay the grossly inflated club fee for the year long commitment. I contacted other clubs and to my dismay I found that the majority of the soccer clubs in the area have the same policy. Our two younger sons play basketball and ski in the winter which they enjoy and we prefer. We had no choice but to pull our youngest son out of club soccer last fall. He just purchased new cleats and it was a difficult decision. I called several soccer regulating associations at the state and national levels expressing my concern. Regulations should be in place to protect our children. Soccer clubs should not be permitted to force young players to full year play and commitment. I view this as a form of forced child labor. I agree wholeheartedly with the article that specialized sports at a young age does more harm than good. Now that the topic is in the forefront, let us all move forward to assure that regulations are in place to protect our children. I ask that US Youth Soccer send a message to all soccer clubs that such policies are prohibited. In the best interest of our children, I ask that not only free play be encouraged but also the freedom to choose between multiple sports be encouraged.
05 May 2015 at 2:06 PM
 
Dave in Bartlett, NH said: What could inform this discussion is adding in an understanding of physical development. There is no point to excessive practice or specialization in the pre-puberty child. And during the fast growth phase of puberty you can actually do harm by having your child spend large amounts of time doing a sport. What that means is a parent should feed a child's passion and at the same time require participation in other sports at least at the recreation level until they have gone through their initial fast growth spurt. My child plays soccer and swims. We have been able to feed each passion because the sports work on alternative schedules. [Soccer fall and spring; Swimming winter and summer]. This is especially tough in swimming where by age 13 most kids are full time swimmers. On a different note, what works for other countries athletes won't necessarily work for USA athletes because of cultural imperatives. I think soccer needs to look at the successful USA sports [basketball, swimming, track and field, etc.] and see what those sports have in common and build from there.
05 May 2015 at 6:05 AM
 
Barry in Atlanta , GU said: OK, I am a EX- pro soccer player from England, I do now coach soccer in the States, as I know a lot of Europeans do. My take on all of the specialist surveys is interesting, except not once did they ask kids what they want to do, if they fancy a sport then let them play. Of coarse coming from England, my father like other fathers took me to every home soccer match throughout the season, all he told me to do was pick a player that I liked, try to copy in the way he played, then go home practice in the street only if I wanted to. I played Rugby in the fall, soccer after Xmas, Athletics in the spring Cricket in the Summer, any spare time in between I practice Soccer my first love. The rest of the kids all over the World do similar things as I did, Brazilian kids, as all kids get a ball and just play. Then as they get older 4 or 5 go to Rec type clubs, get coached, get spotted by Pro- scouts taken to clubs, and either make it or not, but if they are released, they go back and play the level that suits them. Some of the greatest players in the World only played in one or two position, Wayne Rooney who I had watched as a scout at 14 years old had always played as a striker or wide right from 8 years old, Messi, Ronaldo same story. Let kids choose to play what sport, and what positions to play in that sport, because they have falling in love with what they want to do.
14 April 2015 at 1:46 PM
 
mom of 3 in kingwood, TX said: I truly believe that parents and society are bulling and pushing kids to be a specific sport and not focusing on what is most important...an education! With three children so close in age (6,8,10) I think that we should be encouraging our children to try different sports and realize that a child should first be focused on learning the meaning of family and sacrifices, put their homework and education as a priority over a trophy, and learn the true meaning of being humble and being thankful if they do have a gift or talent that could possibly take them on the road of a sports figure. I personally, would rather my children just be well rounded, have perspective, realize that at the end of high school being the best player does not always mean you will be the happiest and most successful. Why do we not focus on our children's minds as much as we do on them winning the games? The odds of a child going pro is very small. I am not putting my eggs all in that basket. I believe we parents should be teaching our children to be family, to use manners, to be humble, and to realize this is only the beginning of their lives. My children are very talented and their skills have come natural without any real training, that is how God made them, but for me I am not impressed by a child who can be the best player because it is a gift and not something to take for granted. In my home "no pass, no play" starts now. I push manners and respect and faith. Not all great athletes started at the age of 4 years old. People need to let children find their interest, let them find their own paths and stop trying to live thru them. I don't understand why athletic ability is the way we feel our children will be acknowledged. I do have athletic children, they are the gifted sports athletic children, but I do not focus on that being their life. I am strict on teaching them to be good people, know an education is always first, and that being good at a sport does not make you better than anyone. Be humble! Be thankful! Treat people like you want to be treated! Have respect for your talent and know there will always be someone who will become stronger and better and that is life...the life of an athlete. Find who you are with education and the rest is icing if it happens. Why do parents all focus our children's future on sports? Ask yourself that!
24 March 2015 at 11:34 AM
 
Joe in Las Vegas, NV said: I know the article attributes the "10,000 hr rule" as the cause, not many know about the 10k-hr theory (its not a rule or law, it's just a theory (idea)). I would argue the reason is much less scientific. Tiger Woods is a story we all know. I would wager that that if we surveyed adults that knew of the 10k hr rule vs those who have seen this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wHkA_983_s That video would be more popular. Do I think specialization a good trend? no. If a kid LOVES one sport is it OK for them to play that one sport? yes. As parents, I think it's best to cultivate our children to try everything, find out what they love, teach them to make good choices, and encourage them to work hard at everything they do. So if they love tennis, and just want to play tennis, and have tried soccer, basketball, etc, and just want to play tennis, then tennis it is. There is nothing wrong with specialization. There is something wrong with adults pushing specialization on their children.
20 March 2015 at 12:27 PM
 
Andre in Chicago , IL said: I think we are behind techinically because there are not enough options for pick up soccer in the US. Kids play pick up basketball all over the inner cities producing the greatest players in the world. These player are elite before they get into HS
19 March 2015 at 2:32 PM
 
Kevin in Charleston, SC said: What we are seeing locally is children being forced into focusing on one sport with year round commitments in baseball, lacrosse, volleyball(girls), and soccer. Not so much in American football or basketball. I think swimming is getting to that level also. I think there are multiple reasons behind this locally. First, we have very large high schools (800+ kids per grade) and only elite athletes will have a chance to play at the high school level one maybe two years at most. If you are not a premier player by 9th grade you aren't going to be playing on the varsity teams. I played varsity football, basketball, and baseball. Those days are gone for anyone except perhaps the likes of a Bo Jackson. Second, the clubs are money making ventures that require year round commitment and in some sports have signed non competes with local town recreational departments. Another words the recreational departments are only for beginners / non athletes while advanced teams can only be formed by the clubs. As an example my child could take the soccer ball on defense and outrun every other kid on the field scoring a goal easily. In baseball he would catch a ball then simply run down the runner vs throwing to another kid. He was the best kid on both teams. I moved him to club soccer and he is now average with the best kids and in baseball he is at the lower end of the spectrum in skill but enjoys playing. The issue is both are year round commitments. What I'm also seeing is a specialization on sports based on birthdates. This called out in a book called outliers or something similar. On his club soccer team 75% of the elite kids are born in Oct / Nov / Dec as the cut off is sometime in September I think. On baseball the kids are mostly born in the May / June I think as their cut off date is earlier in the year. On the positive side the clubs provide excellent/consistent coaching and a great learning experience. Most of his coaches at early ages could easily be high school or college level coaches. This is a very complicated topic.
19 March 2015 at 2:31 PM
 
John in Houston, TX said: There are two topics in here that are important. 1) Free Play and 2) Specialization a)sport b) position Regarding Free Play: The rest of the world that produces great soccer players do have an abundance of free play and produce great soccer players. However the difference is every mom and dad for the most part knows how to kick, pass, and receive a ball properly. Where in the states most parents could teach their kid to throw and catch a baseball, football, or basketball, but lack the basic knowledge in soccer. Therefore US youth players need to find a balance of free play with proper instruction to develop to their fullest. Regarding Specialization: For positional play that is a no brainer as most quality programs rotate players around until they are 13 years old or so. For the sport if it includes free play then let the kids do what they love. If they love it and want to do it then give them access. The premise that 10,000 hours was not meant for athletes in the sport of soccer is unfounded. Messi, Maradona, Pele, "specialized" doing what they love hours upon hours.
19 March 2015 at 12:36 PM
 
Greg in Buffalo, NY said: Very nice article. Interestingly and unfortunately, this is not being preached at the younger ages because youth sports has been monetized. Monetized by people who want to be paid to coach and by parents hearing the sermons and seeing those scholarship dollars. If a kid loves to play great. Let them have at it. Focus on sport achievement at the high school and enjoy all that which comes with it. College levels require athletic abilities that can't be coached combined with advanced technical capability all wrapped up with a passion/ethic combo beyond the norm. The pro-level players are people that have "made" coaches rather than the other way around. They have the gifts that can't be taught. Possibly soccer can look at basketball and ask how they've created the dominate force in the world. I would guess that there is more "free-play" basketball played in the US than other sports. When football/baseball/basketball money ever reaches soccer, the US will be ranked well above where it is now.
19 March 2015 at 11:37 AM
 
Fred  in Houston, TX said: I have two daughters who are very good athletes and I fought the coordinators of the different "CLUB TEAMS" about whether to specialize or not. I grew up playing multiple sports and ended up playing in college so I thought and knew what was important...1) to have my girls involved in athletics because of all the good things it teaches about team, responsibility, and discipline, 2) multiple sports also allows fresh starts instead of the monotony of the same thing which creates BURNOUT at too early of an age. As I read above, there have been multiple friends of mine that have had injuries due to the same repetitive motion without rest or training to balance the body...multiple sports creates that naturally. One of my daughters does play D1 lacrosse for a top 5 program. Her athleticism, competitiveness, and balanced approach were some of her strong points that the coaches in college noticed. My view has always been that if the child just absolutely loves one sport and wants to do no other sport, ok, but they all need a break to rest and another hobby would allow that break time...physically and mentally!
19 March 2015 at 11:19 AM
 
Rob in Philadelphia, PA said: I fully agree with playing a variety of sports but often the system in place works against the words. US youth soccer shares the blame. Youth state soccer associations create year-round programs with fall travel leagues and spring state cup competitions the norm. Leagues use automatic relegation / elevation which works against coaches who concern themselves with teaching skills and a passion for the game. Winning the game is a key aspect of soccer in the end, but doing so while moving children to positions around the field, encouraging them to play a variety of sports, etc makes winning more challenging for sure. As teams are relegated, players start to look for other opportunities. Roster size can be an issue too and while rosters are increased for older teams, a larger roster at younger ages would allow players to miss games to participate in other sports at times without the soccer team being depleted of a fair number of players. It's easy to say you want kids not to specialize but when a team needs to field 11 to play plus a safe number of subs, having a full 18 kids on a roster who play multiple sports can still be an issue with games or competitions often scheduled on weekends for most youth sports. Consider some changes to the structure of youth soccer to make it easier to play multiple sports. Without that the words are meaningless.
17 March 2015 at 11:30 AM
 
Stan in Tualatin, OR said: We must start this discussion by stating that nothing great ever happens without enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, or what we more often term "motivation", most often comes from loving something so much that you want to do it all the time. This goes for any area of life, soccer included. In my opinion, the problem in our youth sports setup is not so much "specialization", but rather "structure-ization" . Playing just one sport is fine if the child is also able to play with friends in the park, in the backyard, futsal, street soccer, soccer tennis, soccer at the beach etc... (All of which are unstructured) Children who are allowed to play in unstructured environments tend to not get burned out as do those kids who only know sports as a structured environment. This whole discussion of what is best/worst for kids is again being controlled by - guess who? The adults. Playing a bunch of structured sports - structured basketball, then structured soccer, then structured swimming etc... and running from one to another is in my opinion, is not what kids want. Kids mostly enjoy playing in unstructured environments where they are not being told what or what not to do, or even how long to play (The child's zone of creativity comes about in a timeless manner and where there is little fear of making mistakes) This unstructured environment allows for the creative side of the brain to flourish. The great German and Bayern Munich star, Paul Breitner, recently was quoted saying that children are artists and not athletes. Most coaches, even when they do have the chance to create a more unstructured environment (more free play as opposed to analytical drills, tend to do the analytical drills because they feel, as adults and a paid coach, that they must control the situation. Some may call these ideas unrealistic, romanticized or impractical, but they are truths. My thoughts are born out of a life spent dedicated to working with children as a teacher at almost all grade levels (k-12), coach all levels (rec. to Academy), and as a parent.
10 March 2015 at 11:59 PM
 
Tonya in Arlington, TX said: This article is very interesting. My daughter is 13 and she plays volleyball, basketball, cross-country, track and field and soccer. Those are her spring, fall and winter sports. In the summer she only swims in the backyard pool. My concern is that she is playing too many sports, she is in high school this coming fall and they want her to basketball and soccer. The club soccer teams want her but she prefers recreation only because a few of her friends went to club soccer in 6th and 7th grade, they have now stop playing soccer completely and she said she doesn't want to start feeling like soccer is not fun. The other parents keeping telling me she wont get seen if she is not on a club team and she is a very gifted natural player who know the game of soccer, not just from a player point of view, she views it as a coach would also that is why they she need to be showcased but I would rather her make the decision to make soccer her only sport instead of the parent or coach so she will have the control over her destination. Plus if I let her she would play soccer year round from indoor to outdoor.
10 March 2015 at 2:28 PM
 
Adrian in Lexington, KY said: I think Sam's comments about allowing free play shows that it’s OK to concentrate on one sport as long as we allow kids to be kids. The generation of the Sandlot Kids has died, and this has lead to specialization we need to let kids play all kinds of different games, even the older kids (and adults) like to play tag games and just have fun.
10 March 2015 at 1:10 PM
 
Theresa Diaz in Woodbine, GA said: Thank you for this very interesting read. We are a military family with three daughter's. My husband and I were both athletes growing up playing multiple sports and wanted the same for our children. During their earlier years 4-10 our girls played in season recreation ball. We never asked them what sport they wanted at that young of an age and rather just signed them up for whatever was in season. Our girls seemed too just go with this flow and it worked really well. As they got into their preteens we introduced them into the club world and with the better coaching came the more personal thoughts on which sport they liked the best. All three of our daughters, played after the age of 9 continuously three sports, than by 9th grade were deciding which sport too let go, (difficult decision when you enjoy playing so many). Soccer was by far the favorite sport, so during the high school the would play club soccer as the serious sport and high school volleyball and softball as the fun sports. The system lasted thru out their HS days and two have played college soccer with our youngest leaning more too Volleyball. With our youngest (15) now started into Volleyball she was by far right off the bat a better player than the girls playing all year round and specializing. We asked the coach how can this be and he told us it is simply because she has used her mind and body in so many different ways that the end result is a true athlete with a better understanding of tactical playing. After only two seasons of Volleyball our youngest is being offered too play on the summer elite college team. All this was because of soccer and the choices of multiple play. Thank you for giving us your insight into the world of soccer. BTW my two oldest are still playing outside of college on women's teams for fun. :)
10 March 2015 at 8:03 AM
 
ANDRÉ LUIZ DE OLIVEIRA in SÃO PAULO - BRAZIL, AL said: In Brazil we have thousands of cases of children and adolescents who specialize early in football and then abandoned the sport when they arrived at the age of 18-20 years of age, many others had serious problems of muscle stress and chronic lesions that were diagnosed late, I believe that child should be treated as a child, or be free to play, learn to understand the game, experience a wide range of sports, to create a bike and cognitive collection to develop better decision making and enhance the reading of the game, the rush by a search results can bring unwanted results which in consequence will leave many unhappy people. "Children should be treated like a child!"
09 March 2015 at 8:32 PM
 
brian in Chicagoland, IL said: My twin boys are 8 and playing with a local travel soccer team. I had them play rec basketball one year, but they didn't want to sign up this winter. I am signing them up for park and rec baseball this summer, but only one seems really interested in trying it out. I do have them take swimming lessons 1x a week right now (they enjoy this), but that is really the only other sport they do. I'm not sure if my approach this summer, where I signed them up for baseball whether they wanted to or not, was right. They seem drawn to soccer and that is what they talk about all the time. I always thought they would be multisport, but I try to let them decide what to do and they seem to want to play soccer all the time. They did ask about hockey and football, but I said no due to worries on my end with those sports. I offered basketball, martial arts, and baseball instead. Anyone have thoughts on this, where the child is pushing towards being single sport?
09 March 2015 at 3:15 PM
 
Brian in Kansas City, MO said: Instead of interviewing a bunch of so called experts in the US and Canada why not find out what the rest (best) of the world are doing. Are kids specializing in Germany, France, England, Brazil....etc...maybe that's a model we should look at instead of asking a bunch of so called experts in the US. On the men's side we are behind in development vs. the rest of the world and I would hypothesize that it's because we don't specialize. Our technical ability lags behind the best because the best grew up with a ball at their feet. Not in their hands...
09 March 2015 at 11:16 AM
 

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