In the hundreds of group workshops Positive Coaching Alliance presents each year to youth and high school sports coaches, parents and administrators, attendees often ask our views on youth athletes specializing in one sport. Typically, we advise that youth players not specialize too soon for a variety of reasons.
In pursuit of scoreboard wins, some coaches will tell children to drop everything but the pigskin. However, when coaches pressure young athletes to specialize too early, there is an increased risk of dropout, burnout, and overuse injuries.
When you factor in poor on-field performance and interpersonal stress resulting from children being pushed against their will, early specialization may backfire. Most importantly, the win-at-all-cost mentality that leads to early specialization often comes at the expense of fun and the youth player's opportunity to learn life lessons through football.
"Prior to puberty, generally age 12 and under, the idea is to expose kids to multiple sports," says Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, and a member of PCA's National Advisory Board. "You should try two or three sports, none of them year-round, and really, ‘sport-shop' "
From age 12 through high school, children still should play multiple sports, Gould recommends, though he acknowledges that cuts, tryouts and greater time commitments mean "kids and parents may not have time to do it all, so the child may have to choose a sport with the parent's guidance."
Note that Gould recommends the child choose. The danger in parents choosing - or giving in to a coach's demand - is that "maybe that's not the right sport, and maybe, like 97 percent of the rest of the population, your child is not going to play college sports," Gould says. "It takes 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become proficient, so people start early to get all those hours in. But if kids don't fall in love with that sport early, they never get all those hours."
This approach to sport specialization leaves plenty of room for youth football players, coaches and parents to pursue football success. For example, youngsters who choose to compete in other sports likely will return to their football seasons rejuvenated by time off and physically and mentally prepared to reassume the unique rigors of football.
Also, there is a rich history of outstanding football players who excelled elsewhere and brought increased speed, strength and agility from their other sports back to football. For example, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders both played Major League Baseball; Bob Hayes and Willie Gault were world-class track-and-field competitors; current NFLers Tony Gonzalez, Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry all played on their college basketball teams; and Jim Brown is the only person inducted into both the pro football hall of fame, the college football hall of fame and the lacrosse hall of fame.
In short, far more harm than good often comes from early specialization, and in the best cases, far more good than harm can come from letting players flourish in places other than just the football field.
This article is the sixth in a series of articles created exclusively for USA Football as part of Responsible Sports (http://www.responsiblesports.com/). This national program brings together USA Football, Liberty Mutual and Positive Coaching Alliance (http://www.positivecoach.org/) in an effort to benefit millions of youth athletes, parents and coaches.