Don’t Specialise At A Young Age

Once there used to be a distinct break between sports seasons, cricket would end and 4 weeks later footy/soccer/hockey would commence. If the player was good enough to be in an Elite/higher sporting program there may be a bit of an overlap, but it seems that sporting codes are demanding more and more each season, that playing multiple sports is becoming harder for young players to manage.

At a higher level sporting bodies believe that they are expected to provide programs that are extensive and time intensive…. And sometimes parents expect that too. Some parents are so desperate for their kids to succeed at a young age that it can have a negative impact. It is also true that it is not always easy to expose kids to multiple sports as parents don’t have the time or resources but where there is a will there is a way.

Channeling a young player down a single path and a near all year-round commitment, means that they will not have time nor know if they are any good or would have a passion for a different sport. There is a stage when a player, of a certain ability, will have to make some choices but this should not be in their early teens.

Youngsters who are a part of an elite program, playing for their club, doing a fitness program, seeing a private coach, etc… means they are spending a lot of time doing one sport. The adage “some is good… more must be better” I don’t think holds water at the younger age groups, actually at any age group. There is a difference between structured and unstructured play. Young players can learn more from playing back yard cricket (unstructured) than from being drilled on a particular shot etc… Remember the saying “don’t put all your eggs in the same basket?”

Different sports require different coordination and physical skills. Some sports require endurance whilst others are start stop based, some involve throwing whilst others involve kicking… each sport has their own skill set and work various muscles and movement patterns. Remember too that young players are going through physical developments, growth spurts, puberty… there is a lot happening to them and taking on a holistic approach to their sport participation can assist with finding that ever elusive balance.

As a coach you tend to see massive improvements in young players in a short period of time. As you get older those increments in improvement are smaller as you advance and understand your game.

Sport offers so much to a young player, self-esteem, social interaction, adaptability, work ethic and problem solving. From a physical aspect it develops power, strength and coordination. Playing a range of sports exposes the young player to different people, different coaches, different roles within teams and different situations, all of which will help develop a well balanced person. Add to this that playing one sport means repetitive strain on the same parts of the body whilst multiple sports shares the load across the body and the argument grows.

In some sports “Elite” programs turn youths into adults, when they are not ready. With expectations like that how does a youth have a childhood. There is plenty of time to be an adult but you only get one shot at childhood. All “Elite Programs” should be quality programs and not quantity programs. In saying this there are some sports where participants peak early as in gymnastics and by the time you hit 20 you are considered too old and if this is the path you have chosen there is little you can do.

Let’s go back to the basics of why youngsters play sports… to have fun. If it becomes a chore the love disappears quickly and if you have to do it day in day out it becomes monotonous. What we are missing is more unstructured play driven by the kids and not organised training from the parents.

Would we rather have a cricketer/footy/soccer/hockey player or an athlete. I believe that develop the athlete and a sports person will emerge. People retire from sport because they have lost the love for the game or they are “burn’t out” do you want this to happen to 17-18 year olds? As coaches we have to look after the interests of the young athlete, if that means encouraging them to try another sport or forcing them to take a break from your program then it will benefit the athlete immensely.

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