When should a youth athlete specialize?

When should a youth athlete specialize?

Spring is here and for me it is always a time of reflection. I thought this post from Tony Robbins summed something I believe: “Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.”

Many times we go, go, go and then we find ourselves tired with nothing to show for it. We forget about the great things we have accomplished (our education, our job, our spouse, our kids) and instead remember the bad things. Its how we are wired.

Its called a negative bias. It means something of a positive impact will have less of an effect on us than something equally emotional but negative. A former coach used to make us keep a confidence journal and write in it three things we did well at practice that day. We were then to refer to it before a game as we got prepared to remind us of all the hard work we have put in. It worked, and I still do it as I prepare for my next bodybuilding competition.

I had a conversation with a parent a few days ago about sport specialization. It prompted me to write this article. To summarize, I came up with 3 reasons (there are plenty more) a child should not specialize. They are:

1.Mental Toughness Gained through Adversity

When an athlete goes from being the best on the team in one sport to a role player in another sport, they get to learn how to deal with adversity. Adversity and learning new skills develops mental toughness. When they go back to their primary sport where they are the best, they are a better leader because they had to become a follower. This skill translates very well in the adult world.

2.Physical Maturation of the Whole Body

Parents, your child will have a better chance of playing sports in college if they are an athlete with 10,000 hours of athleticism. College recruiters don’t want someone with only one set of skills. Skills can be taught, but athleticism is earned through years of acceleration, deceleration, rotational power, read and react, and all the other things an athlete learns by participating in multiple sports. There is no single sport that develops all of these skills alone, and therefore no child should only participate in one sport alone.

3.Prevent Burnout

According to Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, “The number one reason (why they quit) is that it stopped being fun.”  Kids experience burnout in one sport, and with the pressure to always be the best, they end up missing out on childhood. Not only does the athlete get burned out, but the parents exhaust themselves physically and financially unnecessarily.

I have almost 20 years of experience coaching ages 8-21. That means kids I coached in elementary school are now in college or have graduated. Every single one, without exception, played at least three sports in grade school and at least two sports in high school.

Every, single, athlete — without exception.

So take it from someone who wants nothing but success for your child – let them play other sports. Let them develop to their full athletic potential and let them experience trying a sport in which they are not a superstar. The lesson they learn from having that experience will benefit them long after they hang up the cleats and tackle being an adult.


James Leath is a youth sports psychology consultant with over 15 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sports psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters in Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath, or visit his website jamesleath.com.

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