Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.
Sports teach you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches
you to know what it feels like to win and lose—it teaches you about
life. ~Billie Jean King
I am writing this blog while I sit in my rental car and watch one of my
boys at a college division 1 soccer camp. This is a recurring theme in
my life, sitting in my car at a practice, at a game, or at a tournament,
watching him play while trying to tie up the loose ends of my life. I
have it down to a science. I know what to pack, how long it takes each
child to wake up and get ready, where the fields are located, what they
need to eat before and between games, how long a cycle takes in a coin
fed hotel washing machine, and how to hand wash and dry dirty socks and
cleats in preparation for a game the next day. This is going on my sixth
year. And what is so funny is that this scenario repeats itself again
and again by scores of parents whose kids are in travel soccer, baseball,
softball, gymnastics, cheer, and many other sports. Back in my day, as
a kid, if I wanted to play a sport, my mom would take me down to the county
recreation department and sign me up for the seasonal sport du jour. In
the fall, I played soccer, in winter I played basketball, and in spring
I played baseball. During the summer, kids would usually meet at a field
or basketball court for an unstructured pick up game.
Now, I have talked previously about how the chances of a kid getting into
an NCAA program or going pro are miniscule at best. So what is the point
of all this practice?
Well, luckily for me, like some of you out there, I’ve decided to
lap myself and give this parenting thing a do over. I am again standing
on the sideline as some poor coach (previously me, but now it’s
my older son) tries to direct a bunch of five-year-olds on a soccer field.
It makes herding cats look like a cakewalk. At the end of a game, however,
win or lose, the kids usually come off the field happy, tired and ready
for a juice box. In its essence, this is why our kids play sports. To
learn a skill, to learn how to work with a team, to learn patience, good
sportsmanship, to be prepared, to be coachable and to win and lose with class.
So if these are the main reasons for participating in youth sports, why
do most parents fall down that slippery slope of casting off all other
sports and encouraging their child to specialize in one sport?
There is the assumption that sport specialization distinguishes those who
become experts and elites from those that do not. Therefore it makes sense
that by specializing in one sport and focusing on deliberate practice
of that sport with extra hours of instruction, the child’s skill
will improve greater than their peers. All of that sounds great, but let
me give you some of the negatives of specializing in one sport. First
off, it increases the risk of overuse injury. Just like a hinge on a door
that will eventually fail after thousands of cycles, a kid’s shoulder
will wear and fail if all it does every day, eleven months out of the
year is throw a baseball. By allowing children to participate in multiple
sports, they utilize different muscles that lead to better overall conditioning
than they would by just focusing on one set of muscles for one sport.
Also, there can be significant psychological issues involved in sport specialization.
Athletes who specialize usually have greater pressure from parents and
coaches along with intrinsic struggles for perfectionism. This can lead
to early burnout. Burnout itself can be social in nature, such as isolation
from peer groups combined with pressures by coaches and parents. It can
also be driven by physical factors due to over training, overuse injuries
and lack of sleep. The available evidence suggests that youth specialization
before the age of 12 is associated with increased burnout and decreased
Most importantly, there is lack of evidence that early specialization is
necessary for elite adult performance. A study out of Germany reported
that athletes that participate in other sports beyond the individual’s
main sport were associated with greater long-term success in an elite
sport. In addition, 97 percent of professional athletes believed being
a multisport athlete was beneficial to their success. Diversification
of sports during childhood results in increased long-term participation,
increased adult performance and increased personal development.
In my office, I have a forty-year-old framed picture of my little league
baseball team on opening day down at Mallery Park. My dad and the tallest
kid on the team, Thad Haygood, stood behind us holding the team banner.
We were all smiles, clean jerseys begging for a stain and gloves that
smelled of saddle soap. My mother has dozens of those team pictures when
I was on different teams for different sports: Strikers, Island Express,
Cardinals, Nets, etc. Some teams were good and some were bad, but they
were all good memories of going out there, competing, and leaving it all
out on the field.
It isn't until we’re older that we really begin to appreciate
the value of being on a team— the ease of instant friends who share
the blood, sweat and tears of each season of our childhood with us. So
many values from youth sports have stayed with me throughout my life and
are reflected in my attitude now. Work hard; be a gracious loser and an
even more gracious winner; keep your head up until the game is over and
learn from every loss. I apply these in my work life, my marriage, my
parenting and my friendships almost every day. When I’m joyful,
I feel like I’ve just hit a game-winning home run at Mallery Park,
and when I am upset, I can still hear my dad saying, “We’ll
get ‘em next time.” He was usually right…