Why do youth athletes specialize?
There are a host of reasons: pressure from coaches, high expectations from parents, encouragement from college recruiters, or even the athlete’s own desire to participate in the highest levels of the sport. In general, there seems to be a growing societal emphasis on specialization – and not just in youth sports. But as Responsible Sport Parents and Responsible Coaches, our challenge is to understand the issues surrounding specialization, and then determine our own personal “specialization philosophy.”
Our exploration of the idea of specialization begins with a quick look at the research out there – and there is a great deal of it! There have been several studies of talented kids (not only in sports, but also in music, the arts, etc.), and many of these studies have concluded that there are ‘stages’ of talent development. In one study of highly accomplished individuals conducted by Benjamin Bloom, the stages are identified as:
- The Early Years (called the ‘Romance’ or ‘Romantic’ Phase), where kids develop a love for the activity, feel free to explore and have fun in the activity, are encouraged by those around them and ultimately find success in the activity.
- The Middle Years (labeled the ‘Precision’ or ‘Technical’ Phase), where an experienced coach or teacher begins imparting the skills of the activity and the focus is on mastery and skill development.
- The Later Years (the ‘Integration’ or ‘Mature’ Phase), where a master teacher or coach is involved, where a great deal of time is dedicated to practice, and the focus becomes optimal performance. In this stage, a significant amount of time is dedicated to the activity.
What is interesting to note is that for the individuals studied, the phases occurred over a 15- to 20-year period. Each person moved through each phase “in a developmental sequence, without skipping phases.” That’s a critical idea in youth sports – that kids need to have the early fun stage, followed by the middle skills stage, before ever getting to the later optimal performance and “dedication” phase.
Another study of elite athletes by Jean Côté (1999) observed three phases: Sampling (age 6-13), Specializing (13-15) and Investing (15+). Côté’s study observed that during the Sampling phase, the parents encouraged kids to play multiple sports and take in a broad set of experiences, but that by the Specializing phase, both the youth athlete and the parent had selected the preferred sport, although this choice did not preclude the child also playing other sports.
A study by Dan Gould & Sarah Carson in 2004 noted that many parents are taking a “professionalized approach” to initial youth sports involvement and skip Bloom’s Romance Phase by “overemphasizing winning, rankings, single-sport involvement and downplaying the role of fun.”
And finally one last piece of data from some of the research out there. A study conducted by Lenny Wiersma in 2000 found, not surprisingly, that 98% of athletes will never reach the highest levels of sports. Wiersma also noted that “from a sociological perspective, early specialization is thought to isolate the young athlete from peers and interfere with normal identity development.