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The Right Age to Specialize

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Practice makes perfect.  Much of our culture has been driven by this proverb for centuries.  And to no surprise, this message courses strongly through the veins of youth sports.  If our children practice their sport of choice every day, they will likely improve their skills and become better players.  Such a belief seems entirely logical.

The Questions to Ask

But, where do we draw the line? When does more practice make less sense?  When does specializing exclusively in one sport from an early age become a risky investment? From another perspective, why shouldn’t we simply commit our children to playing one sport exclusively on a year-round basis at a very early age so they can become experts by the time they need a college scholarship or at least a competitive advantage in the college admissions’ process?

The Research 

Research studies that support the early sport specialization argument exist, even though they are in small numbers. The most well known, and often misinterpreted study was conducted by Ericsson and colleagues (1993) who reported that musicians training up to 10,000 hours over the course of their careers, using deliberate practice (practice focused solely on improvement and not enjoyment), were more likely to become expert musicians than those who trained significantly less.

Since the publication of this study and its popularity enhanced by Malcolm Gladwell’s mention of it in Outliers, we have witnessed a significant surge in sport specialization nationally.  Yet, a growing body of research has identified the considerable risks of overspecializing and overtraining. Injury, burnout and stress are the unfortunate consequences. And if by putting all our eggs in one basket – one sport – has such considerable health risks, is it really worth it to gamble that specialization is going to lead to the unlikely possibility of college acceptance?

Expert Opinion

Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics over the past 15 yeas have emphasized that multiple sports and diverse training and playing opportunities are far healthier for kids, particularly in childhood. And for those of us concerned about performance, a diverse and balanced training path is even more likely to foster a healthy, well-balanced and stronger-performing athlete.

 

This article was adapted from Dr. Ginsburg’s original posting in the US Lacrosse Website.

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.

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