When should athletes specialize in a sport?

February 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

By Jack Perconte, McClatchy-Tribune

I received a call one day from my son’s basketball coach, “Mr. Perconte, your son walked in to tryouts today and asked me to cut him from the team,” he said. “He doesn’t want to hurt your feelings but he doesn’t want to play anymore,” he proceeded to say. “I will talk to him, but if he truly does not want to play, then he is done,” I responded.

I always knew that basketball was not his favorite sport but I didn’t expect him to take this tactic. It definitely drove home the point about how much kids want to please their parents and what measures they might take to avoid hurting their parents’ feelings. After talking to my son, he just wanted to concentrate on playing another sport.

Specialization is when an athlete drops other sports to concentrate on just one. This has become a much greater issue in youth sports over the last twenty years or so. It was not uncommon years ago for athletes to play two and three sports all through high school. With the emphasis on travel sports and college scholarships, the decision to specialize at younger ages is common. The reasons players or people around them want to specialize vary. The most common reasons revolve around liking one sport the most, having great success in one sport or having the most potential in a particular sport. Of course, all of these are legitimate reasons for wanting to specialize.

When to specialize is an often debated question for many athletes, families and coaches. The initial story above is an example of a “no brainer” decision when it comes to when athletes should specialize. When kids simply do not enjoy playing other sports and it is their decision, then they should be allowed to drop other sports. Often though, it is not that clear cut when a player should specialize.

Great communication is very important.

  • Parents should discuss with the athlete why the player wants to play only one sport.
  • Sometimes it is the parents who think their child should specialize, their reasons should be discussed with the child.
  • The player’s coaches in every sport should be consulted for their advice, especially as to their opinion of the kid’s potential in each sport.
  • Talking to other parents and coaches who have been faced with the same decisions is advised.
  • When an athlete is considering dropping a sport, parents should have them sleep on it for awhile to see if they change their mind. It is not uncommon for kids to think that they want to quit a sport until the season for that sport begins, when their mind changes.

From my experience of dealing with athletes, coaches and families, I have seen many kids regret the decision to specialize. The reason for this regret is twofold. First, they still enjoyed playing the other sports and secondly, all the extra work at their specialized sport did not pay off with the improvement they or others thought would occur. It is important to remember that talent in a particular sport will generally show up whether they specialize or not, so specializing at a young age is not always necessary. Additionally and more often than not, specializing at a young age may lead to burnout or boredom with playing one sport. With this in mind, parents and players should be very careful of committing to one sport too early in an athlete’s life.

Ultimately, I believe the decision should be the players after good communication among all. If players have to be talked into quitting another sport in order to specialize, it is a sign of pushing an athlete and that is not a good thing. “Pushing” generally leads to eventual ill feelings.

Jack Perconte played 12 years of professional baseball. After retiring from professional baseball in 1987, Perconte opened a baseball training academy in Naperville, Ill. The hitting drills, mental training and coaching tips found in “The Making of a Hitter” (www.themakingofahitter.com) were culled from the 60,000 hitting lessons Perconte estimates he gave while operating the academy. He has also written “Raising an Athlete,” and writes for the blog http://positiveparentinginsports.com.

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