Early Sports Specialization: Safe, Sorry or Simply Unable to Say No?

“At what age should they specialize?” Shelby asked me at the book signing. She had her two boys in tow. Her daughter was away on a weekend retreat, so she found herself with a freer schedule than usual. The son in question was a second grader who had been offered a spot on the travel soccer team, but they had turned it down. “Second grade is too early for a travel team, don’t you think?”dsc_0533

That’s a question I get a lot, mostly from parents who have been raked over the coals for not allowing their kid to join a travel team in the second or third grade. Shelby was no exception. The other parents don’t ask. They just sign on the dotted line and fork over the cash.Then they cast disparaging glances at the other parents who have said no.

In some ways I envy the parents who can’t afford the travel team or just can’t devote the time. They don’t have to hold the line. The line is drawn for them, and they have to abide by it. The rest of us have a choice to make, and it’s not so easy to know what’s right to do.

That’s why I find moms like Shelby so refreshing. She could afford the soccer fees, but her family is dedicated to family time and family dinners. “With three kids, we have to limit it to one sport, per kid, per season,” she tells me. Plus, she knows that travel soccer will demand that her son play all year, and he still enjoys playing lots of sports. So, travel soccer it isn’t, at least not for now.

So much of the literature, most of the studies and all the orthopedic experts are pleading with parents not to let their kids specialize early. Sport sampling, rotating different sports each season (like we used to) is what the experts want to see, at least until kids are in high school. Specializing early and playing the same sport year round is hard on kids; it may even injure them. We know this, but it’s hard to resist the pressure to decline the invitation.

I have a feeling that a lot of us know that the early jump to travel may not be good for our kids. If we know that and can’t hold the line, then fine. Tell us that your kid REALLY wants to play only soccer. Believe that your kid has that something special that’s gonna take him all the way to the pro’s. Maybe he does, but believe it for your kid, and be okay with letting the other parents decide for their own kids. If we’re comfortable we’ve made the right decision, we can stop the questioning glances and disparaging remarks.

But I don’t think we are comfortable. I think we know – because we’re smart and we’ve been reading about the increase in youth sports injuries due to overtraining and overuse – that too much isn’t good for them. Permission to do it all allows us not to have to establish limits, and that feels good in the short run. But I have an inkling that we’re really not feeling all that good about it. I know this because Shelby said her neighbors were incredulous. “You’re NOT gonna let him play travel soccer?” They might as well have added, what kind of a rotten parent are you?


We’ve got to stop pressuring our friends and neighbors into doing what we’re feeling uncomfortable about having done. Early specialization is wrong for almost all of our kids. If the players want to stay together with the same bunch of kids for multiple seasons, why not find a different sport or activity they can do together as a team? Try something new they haven’t ever done – yoga or martial arts or boccie ball or whatever – something they can all be inept at as newcomers together, and use that as a bonding experience and a character builder which, by the way, will translate well to their team chemistry when they come back to their primary sport. It’s likely this respite of the “specialty muscles” and the soccer brain will leave them fresh and ready to go come the next soccer season.

And if they decide that rotating through a schedule of sports and activities is just fine with them, it might be very good for the family. When they graduate from high school as well-adjusted, active, healthy kids with a variety of interests, is it really such a bad thing?

As it says on the three story high windows at the NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis, “Of the 400,000 students-athletes, most of them will go pro in something other than sports.”

If they specialize early in a single sport or activity, how can we really know if they missed out on trying something they REALLY would have been good at?

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