Youth Sports Specialization

Kids playing baseball
January 31st, 2020 0 Comments

John Barry

Getting our children involved in sports at an early age is a great idea. Introducing them to working with a team, setting goals and working towards achieving them are great life lessons to learn early on. It can help set up a self discipline that can transfer over to other aspects of life. As our children grow into the sport of their choice, many will show a great talent and possibility to move along further with that sport. It may just be for a high school extra curricular, move on to college level play and possibly help carry them further. If our child shows a high level of talent in one particular sport, is it best then to just push them into that given sport and go all in? Or is it better to diversify and nudge them towards playing multiple sports.


Youth soccer teamThis is known as specialization. Era has person moves the same way. In a sport, most athletes will need to run, jump, move laterally, rotate their torso, and decelerate under control, in some form or another. We can now specialize a skill set to accompany each sport. For instance, this could be perfecting our stroke in swimming, working on throwing mechanics for a baseball, or ow to properly serve a tennis ball, etc. Is it more important to develop that particular skill set at an early age or develop overall athleticism and let the skill come later? The main driver behind this question is what sport the child is playing. Does the performance aspect of a sport peak at an early or later age.
For instance, Olympic female gymnasts tend to be teenagers. They have been honing their craft for a decade or more and now only 16 years old. This means, it is essential for them to train the skills needed for competition at an early age. If they start training skills at 13, this given person, has 3 years to master what a competitor has been doing for ten. Most likely there will be a great difference in skill level between those two.


Let’s try a different sport, baseball. Most baseball players peak either in college and as a professional in their mid 20’s. We can argue that of one of those athletes started specialization training at 6 and the other at 13, there will be a major difference at 16, but the latter of the two still has a few years to catch up before true competition starts. If the player who started specialization training at 13, spent the previous 7 years training overall athleticism, that athlete is going most likely going to run faster, jump higher, throw faster and be a more explosive athlete overall. Now, I want to make sure that this doesn’t mean this athlete has never played the sport before, but rather split there time to play other sports and just worked on overall athleticism.

Training Cycle

In a training program, we only have so much time and energy. There are only so many hours to practice each day, this is why it’s important to plan out what a training cycle will look like. Come up with a vision and a plan. Take into account the child’s interest in the sport, their ability and at which stage in life they will need to be at their very best. If the sport requires the highest level of competition at an early age, then get that skill set mastered. If the highest level of competition is somewhat later in life, let’s train athleticism. It’s important to train both, but take more of 70/30 approach rather than 50/50 in those scenarios. This could be over the course of a single training session, or over the course of months and years. Let’s figure out when is best to do so.

Growth Patterns

When do children grow at the quickest pace? Research shows that children grow exponentially fast from birth to roughly 5 or 6 years old. The next big growth spurt comes with puberty. Obviously this differs from child to child, but for sake of argument, let’s say 13-16. During growth spurts, bones are soft and grow faster than muscles. Think of a bow, if the bow becomes longer, while the string stays the same length, the string is put under higher tension. This makes the string extremely taught and “springy”. If our children’s muscles are reacting in a similar fashion here, we should train speed and agility at these ages. Research has shown they’ll see a greater response in speed training during these ages. It’s less of an uphill struggle to get faster or add bounce and height to a jump.


Girl lifting weights with her dadNow that we’ve set up a plan for athletic development, let’s talk about skill. From our above example it should be the ages 6-13. Now we don’t stop training athleticism here, but we do increase the amount of sport specific training. I personally feel this is a good time to train strength and ability as well. The growing process has slowed and there are less “moving parts” for a child to control. I will also make the argument that playing multiple sports is beneficial as well. I see more and more studies (formal and informal) that show, when surveyed, most high level athletes played multiple sports throughout their youth. There is a carryover effect from one sport to another. The footwork needed for soccer, can assist with agility on the court in basketball for example. The randomness of the training on the body will keep the young athlete learning and truly understanding their body. This will help them understand and absorb the different movement patterns of their body and be able to adapt later in life.
I mentioned growth spurts just before. Make sure to take this into consideration when choosing which level of sport your child should play in. If they are 12, but as big as the 14 year olds, judge their performance alongside the 14 year olds. Can they hold their own or is their athleticism or skill not up to par? This is a key thing to consider when wanting to help your child’s talent flourish, but also not put them in over their head. Kids grow at different speeds and times, but it tends to even out over the long run. Do the little things now, to help set them up for a successful life as an athlete.
Children in Sports

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