First a definition of specialization. Specialization in youth sports is year round training in one sport and one sport only. My oldest son specialized in soccer from age 12. (More on that later.) Some parents select a sport for their kids to specialize in at ages as young as 5.
The alternative to specialization is sampling according to Sharon Chirban, Ph.D, a Psychology Instructor at Harvard Medical School, in a piece for the Huffington Post. Sampling in this case means involvement in multiple sports.
She argues that the dangers of specialization outweigh the advantages. Read Specialization Vs. Sampling in Youth Sports: Which is healthier?
She talks about the physical side:
Overuse injuries are among the biggest risks to young athletes who play a single sport. Training and working the same muscles and joints year-round allows no time for the child's body to rest and recover -- which is essential for healthy development.She talks about the mental side:
In fact, the psychological threats of sports training can be just as serious as the physical injuries. Children who spend too much time training for a particular sport year-round often find themselves experiencing burnout before they reach high school, leading them to withdrawal from sports. Additionally, the increased pressure and stress that comes with this highly intensive and competitive training can be mentally wearing for young athletes.
What she doesn't talk about is my daughter's situation:
My daughter specializes in two sports year round, select soccer and AAU basketball. She also samples in CYO volleyball. She is getting the cross training benefit of sampling and the specialization benefit of year round training.
What she is not getting is time for her body to rest and recover. And my daughter is not alone. Most of the star players on her elite teams are gifted multiple sports athletes who play multiple sports year round.
I worry about specialization. How can you tell at age 10 what sport will provide the most enjoyment, success and confidence / character building long term?
I worry about not specializing. If she does not participate in year round select soccer or basketball other players who do specialize will advance ahead of her.
I worry about overuse injuries. Cross training allows her to develop many different sets of muscles, but she has little time to recover.
What to do?
The Main Point
We are allowing my daughter to play multiple sports year round. We do not want her to specialize at this age. We also do not want her to fall behind in one sport or another. We are not as concerned about overuse issues because my daughter's motor is running non-stop whether she has an organized game or practice or not. She rushes home after basketball games to play basketball on our little basketball court on the side of the house. On days off she begs me to go to the gym where there is an indoor basketball court. I could not slow her down if I tried.
Back to my older son who specialized in soccer. He was a small and agile in his younger years. He would have been considered a finesse player. A midfielder who could defend the middle third and distribute the ball. He was good enough to make the freshman team of his HS. Then he started to grow and the growth robbed him of his speed and agility. The key to HS soccer is speed so he did not advance to play on the JV or Varsity teams. He grew to 6ft 3in. Perhaps volleyball would have been a better choice.
In the case of my daughter, what would you do? Let her play multiple high level, high stress sports year round or specialize in one. She is equally good in both sports.