There are many great reasons that children should play multiple sports – becoming a more skilled soccer player is just not one of them.
Special author’s note: The purpose of this article is not to argue in favor of or against specialization. That is an individual decision and the merits and risks depend a lot on how the particular family is defining it.
My goal is to address common misconceptions so that discerning parents, coaches, players, and trainers can have meaningful conversations and devise practical solutions to the real dilemmas that families face.
Also, there is a need to begin an open conversation between parents, coaches, and experts about specialization within a no-judgment space. We must also challenge experts who offer advice to more clearly define the parameters and level of skill acquisition, they are relying upon to formulate their recommendations.
Restated, when it comes to skill acquisition, details, measurables, and specific examples are important. Otherwise, the conversation becomes very idealistic and often impractical for many families.
Unlike the rest of the world, America has several popular major team sports led by American football, baseball, and basketball. Not only are these sports extremely popular, but they also have massive collegiate and high school followings.
The popularity (and marketing) of these sports creates a unique situation in America where parents choose a variety of these sports believing there are benefits to soccer development that cannot be achieved within a comprehensive soccer curriculum.
The situation is complicated even more by readers who cite medical research in conflating a narrow definition of sports specialization with overuse injuries and other risk factors. In this post, I aim to challenge some of the common misconceptions in an effort to promote a more thoughtful conversation.
Misconception #1 – Exaggerating Early Sports Specialization Based on a Narrow and Irrelevant Definition
For a lot of valid reasons, medical researchers apply a narrow definition to sports specialization – Intense training in one sport while excluding others. Most (not all) parents, on the other hand, define sports specialization as their child has a serious focus on their main sport and plays the other sports purely for fun.
You don’t have to be Trapper John, M.D. to know that, pushing a child to participate in an intense year-round program while excluding all other sports will increase common risk factors cited in these studies. However, this is not the case for most (not all) families whose children enjoy a variety of sports.
Regarding the so-called intensity of training, early specialization does not automatically mean that the content is not age-appropriate. For many parents, early specialization can mean that soccer balls are left around the house instead of footballs. I think the rampant use of a narrow definition of sports specialization leads to misunderstanding and is the impetus for confusion and debate.
Special author’s note: My child doesn’t go two to three months per year not touching a soccer ball. There is a two-month break from team training. We also take total breaks from all training – like most families. We do, however, incorporate low-intensity ball skill training during the offseason. I by, no means, think I have all the answers, but I just don’t see evidence of elite-level ball mastery being achieved by youth players who go two to three months each year not touching a soccer ball.
Misconception #2 – Multiple Sports Training Produces Material Advantages Beyond the Scope of a Comprehensive Soccer Curriculum
Of course, all athletic activities benefit soccer development in a marginal way – even if the benefit is simply a break from soccer. Archery probably improves concentration, swimming improves endurance, basketball improves body positioning and they all improve overall fitness. But even a sport like track and field, which is touted by many multisport advocates, provides little potential benefit to soccer development.
Think about it, assuming the best possible outcomes; how much time is the child going to actually cut off their forty-yard-dash? If they are lucky, maybe a fraction of a second? Those gains and more can be achieved with a soccer-specific speed and agility program which incorporates ball mastery and other soccer skills.
Misconception #3 – All Sports Require Similar Levels of Athleticism and Skill
Let’s acknowledge that . . .