Identity Building

By Craig Sigl

I had a conversation with a sports dad who was asking my advice about how he should advise his 9th grade son regarding choosing what sport to play in an upcoming school year. His son isn’t the typical sports kid, no,he is one of those rare kids who is just a natural athlete and excels at everything.

The story is, his son, let’s call him Max, had played baseball for years as his primary sport and football in season for his school team. It seems that his football coach wanted to give him a shot at starting quarterback for the upcoming season and thought he had a better than average shot at it but, of course, there were no guarantees. Max loved his football coach and got excited thinking about the prospect of being starting QB. On the other hand, Max was a standout on his baseball travel team and his coach there really wanted him to play the fall season with them. Max was the captain and stud of the baseball team and had lots of past success and everyone looked up to him. The baseball coach put some heavy pressure on him to play with the team year round telling him that he had reached the age where it’s time to specialize.

When I asked the dad what his son had said about these choices, he said Max seemed excited, yet hesitant about the football option and seemed pulled more toward the baseball option talking about how it was a sure thing and “I can’t go wrong with baseball since I’m good at it.”I sensed that the dad was convincing himself on our phone call that Max should play baseball because he wanted to see his son feel good about himself and build confidence. That is, until I asked him point blank:“What is it that you want your son to get through playing sports?”He answered:“I want him to learn life skills like determination, discipline, teamwork, the value of working hard for something, follow through, and respect for self and others.”“So, which of these 2 options do you think will give him the best environment to get to the next level of learning those things you just mentioned?” I responded. Long pause…. He came back with: “Wow, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of t that way.”I continued on…“it seems like another season with the same baseball team will probably go a lot like the last season, right? Where is the challenge for him there that can develop his determination? Where is the hard work that requires discipline there?You are so concerned about his confidence but it seems he already knows how to build that from his baseball experiences.

He was so happy to have this clarity and thanked me profusely for the insight ready to jump off the phone and tell Max his advice. I told him, “Not so fast! The 2 of you have been so focused on performance results and celebrating his wins and basing so many of your actions and conversations around that that you are going to have to get Max on board with what we just talked about. Everything taught in youth sports is geared toward and measured on performance as to whether goals have been reached. You say you want all those life skills for your boy but have your actions and words supported that over performance over the years? Another long pause…. You see, Max (and most kids) are fully trained and programmed that Short Term performance results are what matters in their participation. You are going to have start reprogramming him for the long term benefits of life skills and let me tell you, that is no easy task since all of society and culture are on the opposite side of that.

You are also fighting the fact that kids pre-frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until their mid 20’s! This is the part of the brain that understands Delayed Gratification. If the deck isn’t stacked enough already, remember that kids are in a deep struggle to establish their identity and they start building it from EXTERNAL feedback. Max has a lot to lose by going to football and adults far underestimate this motivation kids have to get that external feedback which they base their confidence and identity on. If you want your child to be successful in the long term, you want them to build their identity on qualities, resources, skills, and talents that are NOT DEPENDENT on continued achievements or praise from others. I’ve seen many a talented athlete burn out or stress out because they always felt like they had to continuously “PROVE THEMSELVES.”It never ends and the stress and tension of that burden actually hinders the performance everyone wants.

Instead, Max’s father would do very well to help his kid instill beliefs that last a lifetime that sound something like this:“I’m a fighter and competitor and never ever give up”“I love and seek out challenge”“Discipline and hard work will get me through any difficulty”So….the big take away from this story:

1.Consciously decide what you want for your kid in youth sports.

2.Make your actions and words congruent with #1 above

3.Help your kids build their ego/identity on things that can never be taken away or judged by anything outside of them.

Alright, sports parents. Let’s do this!

Craig has personally worked with thousands of professional and amateur athletes on the mental side of their game. He is an author and creator of 7 mental toughness programs sold in 28 countries and writes to over 35,000 athletes in his emails. Download free ebook: “The 10 Commandments For A Great Sports Parent” at www.mentaltoughnesstrainer.com

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More on sports specialization from a former NFL QB

Our partners at STOP Sports Injuries.org have shared an article written by Chuck Landon of The Herald-Dispatch referencing former NFL quarterback Chad Pennington’s comments in the USA Today about specialization for kids in sports. Definitely good information for parents.

The New Form of Specialization: The Multi-Sport Athlete

By Tony Earp

There has been a lot of research and articles about the dangers of kids specializing in sports too early in hopes for a future career in the sport or scholarship opportunities down the road. Outside of physical and mental burnout, risk of more injuries, and the “fun” being removed from the game, many players deal with pressure from adults to excel on the playing field. The game becomes more about the adults than it does about what is best for the kids. The good news is that it seems parents are taking note and kids are doing other sports or activities throughout the year. The problem is that it seems an important step was skipped. Now instead of doing just one sport, kids are “specializing” in multiple sports. In other words, we forgot to take anything away, and we just keep adding on to the problem.

The idea is correct. It is important for players to play and experience different sports and activities as they grow up. Outside of developing better athletes, it helps prevent overuse injuries and creates well-rounded individuals with a more diverse youth sports experience.

The move away from early specialization and its benefits relies a child playing multiple sports or activities, but not necessarily multiple at the same time. This is the detail that was overlooked by some and now kids are not specializing in just one sport, but are specializing in many sports. In some cases, the situation has gone from one extreme to the other.

With this comes a new kind of burnout and over-scheduled kids who are training 4 plus hours a night in multiple sports. They run from basketball practice to soccer practice, or lacrosse practice to baseball practice, or track to volleyball. Parents do their best to try to manage the schedules and avoid overlap as much as possible so the kid can avoid missing a game or practice for both sports.

The demands of one practice, workload, intensity, what is physically or mentally targeted, is not at all coordinated with the other practices and game schedules. One practice may be a walk through before a game or recover day after a game, and the other practice could be a physically intense session with a lot of fitness oriented activities. In this case, both coaches, are trying to do what is best for their players, but since it is two separate sports with two different schedules, one practice can be very counter productive to the other. In short, it is much harder, and almost impossible, to manage the player’s mental and physical well being due to their being no collaboration between the coaches and sports.

This is not the coach’s fault as most run their teams and seasons in relation to just that season and team. It would be a tall order for coaches to manage their teams and players based on everyone’s extra sports or activities. It falls on the responsibility of the parents and the players to manage their schedules to make sure there is a good balance between both sports and life outside of sports.

Some players who do this are not playing sports on two “competitive” teams, but instead, are playing with one competitive or travel team while the other team is more recreational. Obviously the demands of recreational sports and competitive sports is often very different, but when combined can still create a situation where a child is over-scheduled and not getting the proper rest throughout the week in relation to one sport or the others.

The other issue arises when the athlete is very good at both sports. Often, it can become inappropriate for a player to play at the recreational level of a sport because of their level of play. It can lead to a negative experience for the player, his teammates, and other teams in the league if a player has clearly outgrown this level of play. The player can be seen as a “ringer” and does not belong due to running up high scores or clearly dominating even the next strongest players.

If a player is good and loves to play multiple sports, and they overlap in seasons, then what do we expect the parent or player to do? Pick? This could be an impossible decision for both. Playing at the recreational level at any of the sports is not fun for the player or really that appropriate, and playing competitively at both sports is not appropriate for the physical and mental health of the athlete. It becomes a very tough decision, so it is understandable for the player to try to do both even though it could be too much.

To help with this problem, sports need to offer competitive options that are not yearly or multiple season commitments. This would give players more options to play and train at a level that is appropriate for them, while not having to stack the same sports in the same season. Coaches and programs would need to allow flexibility for kids to play just for a single season or not train in the “off-season” without it being seen as a lack of commitment or dedication to their sport or a lack of drive to improve.

Instead, it would be supporting the multi-sport platform and the benefits that come with it that have been well documented. There will still be players who just participate in a single sport and train more than others, but that does not mean that those players will necessarily have an advantage over the kids who do not train year round. But, it also could mean that they do, but that is ok, because that is how it goes sometimes.

Every player is different and every situation is different, so players who want to, and do, play multiple sports, need to be handled according to what is best for that particular player. With that said, it has to be recognized that there are additional dangers with kids playing multiple sports that overlap in season. Just like a player who specializes and is just playing one sport without rest, a player with multiple sports and no rest could be in an even more developmentally inappropriate situation that can have more negative effects than just playing one sport. There can be additional wear and tear on the body. In reality, the training and time has just doubled… along with diversifying the experiences. The real goal would be to diversify in sports without drastically adding to the number of hours/time spent training and playing to create the most developmentally ideal and safe playing experience possible.

In short, there are issues with specialization, but there can be even more issues with playing multiple sports at the same time. It is all about balance which is what the original push against specialization was based on. Although you want to be careful not to paint everyone with the same brush. What is right for one person is not right for another. Although, most agree that a proper balance needs to be struck between sports and other aspects of life. Especially when the push to play one sport or multiple sports is coming from adults with goals of making higher level teams, scholarships, professional contracts etc, there are a lot of adverse effects to the child.

We do not want to acknowledge the dangers of specialization, but at the same time, have kids stretched thin between multiple sports and only point to the benefits. The benefits of being a multi-sport athlete can quickly be diminished by the overwork and fatigue placed on the body. We want to be careful we do not move from one extreme side of spectrum of youth sports to the other.

Kids can play one sport, or play multiple sports, but parents and coaches need to be constantly monitoring the player’s physical and mental condition. The player must be enjoying the experience and growing within that experience. It should be self-driven, and not externally driven. The player has to want it, not just the coach and/or parents.

As a child who loved one sport, I understand what it is like to have a passion for something and pursue it relentlessly. It has sacrifices and struggles, but I never did it for any other reason except that I loved it. I do not think that is right for most kids. And, what about the child who is truly passionate about multiple sports or activities? Do we deny the opportunity to pursue both? I think that is a hard thing to do.

In the end, we do not want to push kids in specializing in one sport because we think it will help them achieve more, and we also do not want to push kids into playing multiple sports because new research shows it is better for them and many high level athletes played multiple sports. The common ground there is the word PUSH. It is the PUSH from adults and coaches that make either scenario inappropriate for the child.

Know your child. Know your players. Make decisions based on what is best for them and what they love to do and are passionate about. Do not make decisions or push one way or the other out of fear your child or team will be left behind or will lose opportunities to be successful.

Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@superkickcolumbus.com

Specialization leads to more injuries

We’ve talked about the pitfalls associated with young athletes specializing in one sport too early. A study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and funded by the National Federation of State High School Associations Foundation has shown clear evidence that youngsters who only play one sport suffer lower-extremity injuries at a higher rate than those who play multiple sports.

Choosing the Best Youth Sports Program for Your Child

By Jeffrey Rhoads

Ideally your child plays for a coach who is an excellent instructor-one who recognizes teaching opportunities and communicates lessons in a positive, uplifting manner. But in addition to a good coach, participating in the right youth sports programs is essential to your child’s enjoyment of sports. Choose the wrong program or league, and you risk damaging your child’s desire to play sports.

Just as a coach should find a team role in which a young player can succeed, you must locate the youth sports program that best suits your child’s age, interests, and level of play. Only by providing your child with a progression of playing opportunities that match these factors, will you provide him or her with the best sports experience.

Starting Out
For the youngest children playing organized sports for the first time (ages five through eight), the emphasis is primarily on fun and basic skill instruction. Fun at this level is running around with a minimum of structure and rules. Within a couple of years, your child can more fully participate in the adult version of the game and begin to learn additional individual skills and team concepts. Competition is also introduced at this level. Youth sports programs that are developmental in nature and participation-based are essential to children in both of these age groups. You should make sure that your child’s youth sports leagues emphasize these principles.

As your child ages and his or her skills develop, you may see your child excel in one or more sports. You will then face the decision of placing your child in a more advanced, competitive league. Possibly your child will have the chance to play with older children. An opportunity for your child to begin specializing in a sport may also appear. In these decisions, carefully weigh the pros and cons. If your child truly enjoys a sport, exhibits a competitive nature, and is more physically mature, playing at higher levels with better players will usually improve his or her level of play. But advance your child too quickly and you risk your child’s confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Avoid SpecializationExplore Multiple Sports
Specializing too early presents the risks of injury, burnout, and loss of crossover benefits from other sports. Several studies (most recently a 2011 study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center) have found a higher incident of injury associated with early specialization. For children who have not yet reached puberty, specialization in a single sport is also risky because physical maturation (changes in body type) may limit their ability to succeed in that sport. For example, a young girl who grows to be six feet tall is unlikely to find success as a gymnast.

Try to balance your child’s development against these risks and select youth sports programs that you feel best match your child’s particular personality and ability. The right youth sports program should challenge your child, but also enable them to enjoy the entire experience.

Should your child participate in select travel teams, you should still look for a program that provides good instruction. A league that is comprised mostly of competitive games, but little practice time, will not provide the opportunities for a coach to teach and develop his or her players.

Also remember that competitive, talented athletes often still enjoy leagues which emphasize participation. These leagues can provide a chance to play with friends in a more relaxed environment. They also offer better athletes the opportunity to develop and exercise leadership skills. As a parent interested in your child’s happiness, you could do a lot worse than placing your child in a participation-based instructional league.

Provide Opportunities for Self-Directed Play
And finally, provide your child with opportunities to play pickup games with other kids. This unstructured, self-directed form of play complements organized sports and affords your child with other essential benefits.

Jeffrey Rhoads has coached youth sports for over 25 years. He has worked with all levels of young players–including both absolute beginners with limited athleticism and more talented athletes who went on to success in high school and college. Mining both his experience as a youth coach and his own joyful, sports-filled youth, his writings provide valuable guidance for parents, coaches and players on how to create a great youth sports experience. He is the author of The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child.

His blog, Inside Youth Sports, can be found at: www.insideyouthsports.org

Good information from TruSport

We’ve told you about these folks before. We love their mission and what they stand for. Here is some great info on sports specialization:

Last time, we told you how youth sports can be a vehicle for developing healthy eating habits that help children achieve peak performance both on and off the field. This week, we want to share how playing multiple sports allows children to develop a wider variety of motor skills and helps prevent burnout and injury.

Before you read any further, consider that 88% of players drafted in the 2015 NFL draft played another sport in high school (TrackingFootball.com).

Sport specialization is an incredibly hot topic right now and your take on it is likely related to your values and interests as a person.

With the exception of early-specialization sports like figure skating and gymnastics, current research suggests that it is best for children to sample and play multiple sports prior to the age 15. Playing multiple sports allows children to develop a variety of motor skills (footwork, hand/eye coordination, throwing and catching skills) and helps prevent burnout and injury.

Rushing to specialize in one sport can be a detriment to a child’s long-term performance, enjoyment of sport, and even long-term health. Encourage development on all levels for a well-rounded athlete and kid. Specialization isn’t a bad thing, but it’s got to be for the right reasons—and driven by the child.

In order to give you a variety of perspectives and thoughts on if—and when—your child should focus on one sport, we talked to four top youth sports experts for their opinions on the matter.

To read more about single-sport specialization, visit our sport specialization page at TrueSport.org or email us at truesport@truesport.org.

Is It Wise to Specialize?

By John O’Sullivan

The greatest difference between our children’s sporting experience and our own is the rise of year round, sport specific organizations that ask – even require – season after season of participation in order to stay in the player development pipeline. The pressure to have your child specialize in a single sport at a young age has never been stronger.

As a result, parents ask me all the time “When should my child specialize in one sport?”

When I tell them what the science says to wait, many tell me “That’s not possible. If my child does not specialize early she will be left out, not make the travel or high school team, and have no chance of playing in college. You live in a fantasy world.” They tell me about coaches who have told them they need 10,000 hours of organized, structured practice, and their fear that other kids will be getting a leg up on theirs if they do not specialize. They are stuck in a downward spiral that is detrimental to their children, but feel helpless to change course.

In the words of Kirk Anderson, Director of Coaching Education for the US Tennis Association:

“Even if parents and coaches know and understand age-appropriate principles for children, I think they would be reluctant to accept them because they would fear their child would fall behind the kid in a more structured program that focuses on training, competition and deliberate practice.”

This fear has forced kids into sports that often are not of their own choosing, and in many cases compels them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, not intrinsically motivating, nor are congruent with their actual athletic abilities. This path fails to consider many of the physical, emotional and social costs to children who only play a single sport.

There is a different path. It is the one based in science, psychology and best practices of athletic development. It is one that serves the needs of children for a lifetime, reduces injuries and burnout, increases enjoyment and motivation, and produces better athletes. Sound appealing?

It is the path of multiple sport participation and less structured play.

But don’t take my word for it. Below are some eye popping facts and statistics that should make every parent think twice about early sport specialization in sports like football, soccer, baseball, hockey and basketball, where athletes peak in their 20′s.

First, here are five research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your child:

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
  2. A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of LoyolaUniversity found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
  5. Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears

If that is not enough for you, here are six research based reasons for multi-sport participation:

  1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
  2. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
  3. Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
  4. 10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one, deliberate practice. That, he says, is wrong.
  5. Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researches found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment are incredibly important. These are termed deliberate play (as opposed to deliberate practice, which are activities motivated by the goal of performance enhancement and not enjoyment). Deliberate play increases motor skills, emotional ability, and creativity. Children allowed deliberate play also tend spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes in structured training with a coach.
  6. There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

An additional thought is provided by top youth sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas. They suggest that at no time should a young athlete participate year round in a single sport. While they recommend that athletes in sports whose competitors peak after age 20 need to accumulate around 10,000 hours of general sports participation, no more than half of that needs to be deliberate practice of their chosen sport. As a general rule they recommend the following age breakdown for athletes trying to achieve elite status in a specific sport:

  • Prior to age 12: 80% of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports OTHER THAN the chosen sport!
  • Age 13-15: 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic pursuits
  • Age 16+: Even when specialization becomes very important, 20% of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.

How Do You Approach People with this Information?

Every adult involved in youth sports will come up against people who advocate for single sport specialization. Some think their child is the next Tiger Woods, the next Venus Williams, the next Lionel Messi, so they are getting in their 10,000 hours. Others are afraid to go against the grain, and fear that they are disadvantaging their own child by not specializing. Hogwash!

I meet these folks too, and I blind them with the science. I then ask for the data and research that supports their theory. Cue the cricket noises, because it does not exist.

If you know these folks, send this to them. Post it on Facebook. Send it to your club director and your coach who thinks you should skip grandma’s 90th birthday because your U11 team has your fourth tournament of the summer that weekend (this is an actual call I took by the way).

Of course, this will not work all the time, or even most of the time. Visit your local airport smoking lounge to see the effect an abundance of science on the hazards of smoking has on many folks. But who cares, present it anyway!

At some point, parents need to ask themselves “Are we ready for a better alternative?” Does my 10 year old really need to keep playing 11.5 months of soccer a year in order to have a chance of success? Am I really doing him a disservice by making him play multiple sports, and trying to help him find one he is passionate about?

I think we are ready for an alternative. I think people are sick of 11 straight months of 6am trips to the hockey rink, and weekend after weekend of expensive out of town soccer tournaments for “elite” 11 year olds. I know I am not alone in thinking this.

The best sport psychology is on our side. The best research into athletic development and physiology is on our side. The top minds in sports medicine are on our side.

Aligned against us are a few people who stand to profit from promoting the mythology surrounding single sport specialization. Not scientists. Not researchers. Not top coaching minds. Profiteers, often backed by parents and coaches living out their own unfulfilled sports dreams through the children.

I like the company I am keeping these days. For the sake of our kids, I hope you will join me.

John O’Sullivan is the Founder of the Changing the Game Project, and author of the national bestseller Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High-Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports back to Our Kids. He is a longtime soccer player and coach on the youth, college and professional level, and a nationally known speaker on coaching and parenting in youth sports. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Soccer America, and SoccerWire.com, and he recently gave a TED talk on “Changing the Game in Youth Sports.