DON'T DRINK THE KOOL AID: Specialization in Youth Sports

This is the first of the three part Don't Drink the Kool Aid Series I will be running this winter. My intention for running the series is to provide parents with facts regarding three big issues in youth sports so they can make fact based, informed decisions about their families participation.

Below are the topics I will be covering in the series:

  • Specialization in Youth Sports
  • Youth Sports Travel 
  • The Importance of Free Play in Youth Sports

"More isn't always better.  Sometimes it's just more."  -Barbara Benedek

You might have had a similar experience.  Four years ago I was trying to find a basketball team for my daughter.  She tried out and made one of the top teams in the state, but before we agreed to join the team, we had to agree to the coaches conditions which were for the most part reasonable, except for one.  We had to make a one year commitment and only play for that team.  The coach stated we must focus only on basketball or my daughter will not become as good as she can be.  He said, "All the best players are now specializing in 5th or 6th grade.  She will fall behind.  She won't get a college scholarship."  Oh no!  Since it is our family policy to only allow our children to play one sport at a time, we had to ask our 10 year old if she really wanted to join the team because she played other sports and she would have to give them up for that one year period.  She decided to join the team.  I took a gulp of the Kool Aid.

At the time, I wasn't too concerned about my daughters decision.  Since she loved to play, I felt the more she played basketball, the better she would become.  She will be really good if she plays all year!  In the adult world, that is a rational conclusion.  Practice makes perfect!  Not really.

I did not know the facts at the time, but the truth is kids who play multiple sports almost always end up being happier, better athletes.  Committing to one sport or one team for a year, specializing, really was not a good decision.   However, I think her coach truly believed what he told us and I did not know better either.

In youth sports, more isn't always better, sometimes it's just more.  

Recently, I conducted my own little street sociology study.  I first looked at our Colorado Premier Basketball Club coaches (a non profit youth basketball organization I founded several years ago) and found that every single coach in our club that played Division I college basketball, and we have quite a few, played multiple sports growing up.  Is it just a coincidence? Not really.  

Digging deeper, I found that many (if not most - I am just a street Sociologist after all) professional basketball players played multiple sports growing up too. Check out a few of the names below.  Do any of them ring a bell?

Lebron James - All State Football

Tim Duncan - Swimming

Kobe Bryant - Soccer

Steve Nash - Soccer and Ice Hockey

Then I went to the experts.  I would like to point you to a great article written for the Huffington Post by Dr. Ken Reed, who is a Board Member of Colorado Premier Basketball Club.  Ken is not your typical PHD.  He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver, a master’s degree from Colorado State University (concentration in athletic administration), and a doctorate in sport administration (emphasis sport policy) from the University of Northern Colorado, but he also lettered in baseball AND basketball at the University of Denver and has worn many hats in the world of sports, including coach, sports official, scout, manager, and sports talk show host. He knows what he is talking about.

His article,  "Youth Sports Specialization Defies Logic", lays out a very strong argument against specialization.  Here is a link to the full article:

Youth Sports Specialization Defies Logic 

It turns out that specializing in one sport really is NOT good for our kids.  Specialization causes over use injuries, burn out and hinders the young athletes ability to develop their full potential.  It does NOT make them better at any sport they play, but we keep getting served the Kool Aid by coaches and youth sports organizations.  Why?  I believe there are two main reasons. Ignorance and money.

As Ken stated in his article, the reality is that specialization defies adult logic.  Unless parents, coaches and youth sports organizations get the facts, we will continue to be ignorant (like I was!) and believe and advocate the false reality that specialization makes our young athletes better.  If we really want what is best for our kids, we will ENCOURAGE them to try multiple sports, take some art and music classes, and help them to develop into well rounded athletes and people, but there is always the money factor.  

Some coaches and youth sport organization directors make a living coaching.  Some of them make a really good living.  Encouraging kids to try other sports and activities impacts their pocketbook.  It is a tough situation because we want well trained, qualified coaches for our children, and often those coaches need to coach full time.  Many LOVE coaching and they should be able to make a living for their work.  

Ultimately, it comes down to this:  Youth sports organizations and coaches must put the KIDS FIRST in EVERY decision they make regardless of financial implications.  Forcing specialization is not a kids first decision.  Will it hurt the bottom line?  Maybe, but my gut tells me that organizations will still be successful and coaches will still be able to make a living because parents will appreciate their honesty and willingness to put the best interests of their child ahead of financial gain, and they will keep coming back, even if it is not 12 months of the year.  Maybe, they will actually see more kids coming into their program,  just like we did at Colorado Premier Basketball Club.

-Keith Van Horn - I'm a husband, father, entrepreneur, coach, writer and former University of Utah All-American and NBA Basketball Player.  I blog about youth sports policy and issues, parenting young athletes, college basketball and occasionally a little more.

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Web: keithvanhorn.com

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Twitter:  @coach_keith44