Kids who specialize too early often get the short end of the hockey stick

Here in Canada many kids grow up wanting to be hockey stars, and so, when they start to show some promise, parents immediately encourage them to drop all other sports, in their quest to create the next Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, that kind of specialization rarely does your child any favours — and it’s not any better to focus solely on golf, soccer, tennis, basketball, or most other sports parents think are their child’s calling (there are a few exceptions that do require early specialization like gymnastics and skating, for example).

According to a David Epstein article in the New York Times:

Children are playing sports in too structured a manner too early in life on adult-size fields — i.e., too large for optimal skill development — and spending too much time in one sport. It can lead to serious injuries and, a growing body of sports science shows, a lesser ultimate level of athletic success.

Epstein points out that one reason hyper-specialization is so popular an idea is because of stories about athletes like Tiger Woods, who started early, focused in, and then rose to greatness; but the reality is his story is not common. In fact, studies show that it’s better to engage your child in multiple sports until at least age 12, and that many successful athletes practiced their sport less through their early teenage years, only honing in on their chosen sport as they got older. Those benchwarmer athletes who never hit their stride most often were the ones who specialized too early.

Those are the facts, and they’re reason enough, but there are other things to consider; when parents encourage their kids to compete to be the best, it takes away the pure love of playing. A little competition is good; too much single-minded focus teaches kids the only thing that matters is being number one.

We all want our kids to be their best selves, but that doesn’t mean forcing them early on to a chosen path. Maybe your kid is meant to be the next Serena Williams or Michael Jordan, or maybe not. Just keep them playing lots of sports and having fun; give them the chance to figure out for themselves who they’re meant to become.

By the way, David Epstein is also the author of a thought-provoking book called The Sport Gene. Read our review.

3 responses to “Kids who specialize too early often get the short end of the hockey stick

  1. I think schools should provide options for kids to do sports at school level they enjoy more fun to learn new things with friends. Schools in BC lack that sport activity which can be provided year round. Kids should have option to choose two activities in a year and stick to it.

    1. Richard, you should read Epstein’s article (and maybe his book, where he provides plenty of citation). We’re happy to provide some additional references if you can be specific about what you’d like to know.

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field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_4' >Age When Submitted</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_4' id='input_10_4' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_5" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i class='gform-icon gform-icon--hidden'></i><span>Hidden</span></div><label class='gfield_label' for='input_10_5' >1st Birthday</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_5' id='input_10_5' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></div><div id="field_10_6" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_hidden" ><div class='admin-hidden-markup'><i 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