In the United States, most children end up playing the same sports as their parents. This has many advantages, as the parents can guide them into proper training and are often more supportive when the children follow in their footsteps. The disadvantage is that if the mother or father was an exceptional athlete, this could put excessive pressure on the child. There is also the issue that the sport a parent played may not necessarily be the best one for the child. What is the best approach? Let’s take a closer look.
To ensure that their children are able to fulfill their physical potential in a sport, parents will often have them specialize in a sport at a young age. The greatest athlete in the history of weightlifting, pound-for-pound, is Naim Suleymanoglu. Although pediatric organizations in the US contend that heavy weight training should be reserved for more physically mature athletes, Suleymanoglu was breaking world records when he was 15 years old – not junior world records, but senior world records! He went on to break 51 world records, and at his peak he snatched 150.5 kilos (331.5 pounds) and clean and jerked 188.5 kilos (415.4 pounds) weighing just 132 pounds.
As with weightlifting, many other sports have prodigies who started specialized training for their sport at an early age. Soccer superstar Freddy Adu was earning half a million dollars a year when he was 14; at the age of 17 Maria Yuryevna Sharapova won Wimbledon; and LeBron James’ salary was over $4 million his first year out of high school (and this doesn’t include commercial endorsements).
Whereas the Russians, Chinese and Americans have a large athletic pool from which to draw to develop athletes, the former East Germans were especially effective at identifying young talent and bringing them to elite levels of athletic ability. In fact, I learned German in the 80s for the sole purpose of being able to translate their sports training literature, which at the time was ahead of research published in North America. The German sport selection philosophy is summarized in Dietrich Harre’s Principles of Sports Training (Ultimate Athletic Concepts, 2012) in the following statement: “The development of competitive sport and the development of young athletes are best served if each athlete trains in that sport or discipline for which he or she is best suited and if coaches choose mainly those athletes for competitive sport who have the necessary potential.”
Harre’s textbook goes into detail on how to determine which sports a young athlete would most likely excel in. Two other excellent books are Applied Anatomy and Biomechanics in Sport, 2nd Edition, by Timothy Ackland, Bruce Elliot and John Bloomfield (Human Kinetics 2009) and Sports Talent by Jim Brown (Human Kinetics 2001). Brown’s book is the best starting point for a reader who does not have a background in sport science, and Ackland’s book is unique in that it contains many anatomical photos of elite athletes.
Early specialization may have worked for the athletes mentioned previously, and sports competition has progressed to the level that it would be difficult to reach a high level without early specialization. With some sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, early specialization is absolutely essential to achieve proficiency. Nevertheless, for most kids, especially those who don’t display any exceptional physical gifts for a sport at a young age, it would be best to participate in multiple sports. Here are four reasons:
1. Increased risk of injury among youths.
Between 1977 and 2007, the number of injuries in physical education classes increased by 150 percent. What’s more, middle school athletes accounted for 52 percent of those injuries, and the number of head injuries doubled in children of ages 5-10 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest rates of sports-related injuries occur among kids of ages 5 to 14, and every year over 3.5 million children are treated for sports-related injuries. What’s especially disturbing is that according to the National Alliance for Sports, 70 percent of kids quit league sports by the age of 13 and never play again. In one interview Al Vermeil, a professional strength coach who possesses world championship rings in football and basketball and who will be speaking at our 2012 Eleiko Strength Summit, said he was alarmed by the increasing number of sports medicine clinics in the US. One reason for this increase in injuries may be due to the increased stress on the body associated with early specialization.
2. It’s difficult to determine what sport is best for a young athlete
. A child may excel in a sport because they mature early, such that their parents and coaches think this is the sport for them. Football is such a sport and possibly hockey. Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book Outliers that in Canada one of the primary reasons for success in hockey was having a birthday close to January 1st. This is because it was the cutoff date for age-class hockey programs, such that an athlete born in early January will have nearly a year more of physical maturity compared to an athlete born in late December.
3. College scouts often prefer multi-sport athletes.
Often college coaches for team sports prefer athletes who excel in numerous sports. In football, often a player’s performance often is influenced by the abilities of his teammates (for example, a good offensive line will help a running back put up impressive rushing stats), and seeing how an athlete performs in other sports will give a more objective perspective of their talent. Besides, in college an athlete may wind up playing a position different from the one they played in high school (for example, if a football team has plenty of good defensive linemen, it may move some of them to the offensive line). A well-rounded athlete would probably adjust better to such changes.
4. It’s better for kids to play sports they enjoy.
Even if a kid is no good at a sport, if they like it they will continue playing it. A high school athlete who is short and quick may be more suited for soccer; but if they hate soccer and love volleyball, they may be better off playing volleyball. At the very least, they are more likely to make volleyball a lifelong sport.
To achieve the highest level of sporting achievement it’s necessary to identify talent and have an athlete specialize in that sport as soon as possible. For most young athletes, however, to ensure a long and healthy athletic career it may be better to expose them to a variety of sports to find not just what they are gifted for but also what they enjoy.