Sport Specialization Is Not the Answer

Will Ruth

I posted an article on Facebook a month ago summarizing many of the problems with youth sports and explaining a few ways that youth and high school coaches could improve the situation. The article was “Does Youth Sports Get the Math All Wrong?” by John O’Sullivan from the Changing the Game Project. Many commenters on the article agreed, but one nonbeliever stuck out. They said, “How do you expect part-time HS coaches to actually do any of this?” and suggested that it would be, “like a Harvard Skytte prize-winning professor coming to 3rd grade to teach quantum physics.”

I know a thing or two about a thing or two, and haven’t gotten a Skytte prize for either of them, but here’s what this part-time HS coach does. First, let’s cover research-based evidence of youth sport specialization vs. non-specialization, or “multilateral” development.

#1: “Don’t force, expect, or encourage early specialization”

I encourage all of my athletes to play other sports in the off-season. I don’t leave the “why” up to them—expecting children or HS athletes to read between the lines is a road to frustration. I always played multiple sports, so I talk about what I personally learned and how I applied it from sport to sport. Lead them through it and draw comparisons between their sport and others. Most young athletes won’t see the strategic similarities between soccer and lacrosse or similar skillsets between wrestling and football until you explain it a bit.

Even within the sport, I encourage a flexible mindset. Some of my new JV players were shocked on day one of practice when I moved someone from attack to midfield. “But coach, I’ve always been attack.” Well no, you’re 14, you don’t know what you are yet!

Parent support is critical to achieving this mission. I ran into the father of one of my JV midfielders during the lacrosse off-season, asked how his son was doing, and the dad sheepishly explained, “well, he’s not playing [off-season] lacrosse, but he did make varsity tennis as a sophomore.” He went from shock to relief when I explained how I was much happier about that than a single-minded focus on one sport. I must’ve brought up playing other sports fifty times to my players over the season, but it didn’t make it through to the parents. Make sure the parents know where you stand.

One thing parents really care about is health of their sons and daughters. Here are some objective health reasons to be a multi-sport athlete.

“In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports”

james clear graph

Source: James Clear

#2: “Look for quality of competition, not just quantity”

At the youth and JV level, we’re more focused on learning the game than we are game planning and preparation. One player asked me before a game if I had scouted the other team to analyze their game. I laughed at the idea of a part-time coach traveling across the county to scout JV teams and explained that no, we’re going to play our game and learn to play it well against any opponent. Quality opponents back this up as well. We could go to a low level tournament and roll through teams with bad fundamentals, but how does that help our player development? I’d rather play 8 great games a season and really maximize practice time than 6 good games and 6 blowout wins with a bunch of travel, missed practices, late nights, and potential injury from playing fatigued or with under-qualified refs.

“Think about it. In your first tournament game, everyone plays full speed, 100%. But your second game of the day, you are at 90% because of fatigue. Your third and fourth game of the weekend, you are at 80% speed. If you make the final, everyone is tired, sore, carrying injuries, and playing 70-80% of full speed. Not only are your players increasingly susceptible to injury, but in four out of your five games, they have played at a slower speed due to fatigue. Your players are rarely playing at maximum pace or making maximum decisions per minute…they are learning over and over to play slowly.” Raymond Verheijan, 4x World Cup coach

#3: “Stop talking about college sports so soon”

High school sports should not be a business venture. The quickest way to take the fun out of the game for a young man or woman is to make them feel like it has to go somewhere and that they can’t stop to just enjoy the process of play and mastery. The more that I can do for my players’ chances of college athletics without them knowing it, the better. Encouraging them to play other sports, develop as a comprehensive athlete, and truly learn the game rather than just memorizing a position are all things that can help them be successful at the next level. When a player is personally driven for recruitment, we’ll work with that athlete to achieve that. The goals of one don’t have to become the goals of all.

Even when an athlete is interested in pursuing college recruiting, specialization STILL isn’t the answer. While there is a place for select off-season competitive opportunities like camps and showcases, college coaches want multi-sport athletes. Don’t take my word for it–listen to the coaches themselves:

Dom Starsia, University of Virginia Lacrosse: “My trick question to young campers is always, ‘How do you learn the concepts of team offense in lacrosse or team defense in lacrosse in the off-season, when you’re not playing with your team?’ The answer is by playing basketball, by playing hockey and by playing soccer and those other team games, because many of those principles are exactly the same. Probably 95 percent [of our players] are multi-sport athletes. It’s always a bit strange to me if somebody is not playing other sports in high school.” [Source]

Pete Carroll, NFL Seahawks: “I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience. I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport.” [Source]

Chris Bates, Princeton Lacrosse: “If you are in that environment where your kid is specializing in one sport across several seasons, understand what you are getting for what you are paying. You want to be in a good teaching environment. With so much focus these days on games, games, games, what’s getting lost is practice, practice, practice.” [Source]

Scott Marr, Albany Lacrosse: “What we like is the diversity that these kids experience — different rules, different skill sets, different coaching styles. They’re not doing the same thing all the time, but learning and understanding different strategies and muscle memory. It strengthens the mind to learn different skills.” [Source]

Ryan Boyle, Princeton ’05, MLL: “It is true that multi-sport athletes have less time for lacrosse-specific training. But the short-term advantages of lacrosse-specific training pale in comparison to the long-term advantages of multi-sport participation. College coaches prioritize potential over polish. They believe multi-sport athletes have barely tapped into their lacrosse potential, whereas the specialists have already maxed out.” [Source]

Lax Magazine: Why College Coaches Prefer Multi-Sport Athletes

Eight Must-Have Attributes for College Athletes. Tell me you can develop all eight of those plus your sport while playing year-round. You have to Maximize Your Off-Season.

#4: Plan and run practice in a manner conducive to fun and improvement, not militant authoritarianism

Everyone, adults and youths, learns better by engaging with the subject. Most people learn best by actually practicing the task or learning the information as part of a system, rather than isolated rehearsal or rote memorization. We do basic drills in lacrosse as part of our warm-up, but the rest of the practice is done at a higher pace with games that incorporate some element of the lesson plan for that day. We generally plan our practice in thirds, following this structure:

1st third: Warm-ups and basic individual drills

2nd third: Situational games to teach the theme of the day, often broken into smaller groups. We’ll split offense/defense here or run 4 vs. 3 or 3 vs. 2 drills (lacrosse is usually 6 vs. 6) in a way that teaches the larger part of the game.

3rd third: Simulated games or scrimmage to put the 2nd third into practice. We set the scrimmage or game up in a way that reinforces what we spent practice teaching. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. We’ll either stick with the theme or move on to the next one.

This helps keep practice fun and productive. Players know what to expect, but practice isn’t a monotonous repetition of the same drills we do every day. It also really helps us as coaches with practice planning because this is easy to set up ahead of time, allowing us to focus on actually coaching when we’re at practice rather than worrying about what drill to do next.

I’ve introduced this to the Western rowing team as well, showing that the system can work for non-field sports too to keep athletes engaged and continually improving.

1st third: Land warm-up then on-water breakdown drills by pairs/fours

2nd third: Stroke breakdown, focusing on one element of the stroke and doing 2-3 drills that emphasize that specific technique

3rd third: Race pieces, looking for technical improvement for the theme of that practice

This is how we emphasize point #2 in the original article: “Youth sports make poor use of kids’ time.” Parents and players make a lot of sacrifices to dedicate time to playing organized sports. Let’s make sure that the time is worthwhile from an activity standpoint for every player, not just the starters.

#5: Model the goal behavior

What you do means a lot more than what you say. If I ask that my players respect the referees, be good teammates to each other, and maintain good sportsmanship with opponents, I’d better be doing the same.

This goes for my mission of encouraging multi-sport athletes, too. If I tell them to play another sport in the off-season, then the next season reward the ones who continued playing lacrosse in club programs with more playing time, I’ve just undermined my own message. It’s common for coaches who stay in touch with their athletes through off-season camps and club programs to give those athletes you know best the nod when the season comes around. I worked with one coach who knew the names of all the kids who played club programs, but didn’t make an effort to learn the names of the kids who only played lacrosse in one season. He didn’t realize he was doing it and once I drew his attention to it, he made a point to put everyone on a level playing field. Players need to earn their position on a team, not purchase it through club programs, and it’s our job as coaches to reinforce that message.

Like I said, none of this has earned me a Skytte prize, but I hope that this is helpful for any other coaches, players, or parents out there trying to navigate the wild world of youth sports. I look for 1-2 takeaways when I read articles, watch videos, or listen to coaching talks, so I’m happy if there’s just one thing that you can take from this and immediately put into practice in your own coaching, player development, or philosophy. Now go play!

 

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