“Back when we were kids: if you were a reasonably good athlete, you could probably kick a soccer ball for the very first time in 7th or 8th grade and still make the high school team…”
If you are reading this, you are probably at an age where Back when we were kids… stories/ statements are all over the place. Well, a friend of mine recently declared during our sons’ soccer practice that: “Back when we were kids: if you were a reasonably good athlete, you could probably kick a soccer ball for the very first time in 7th or 8th grade and still make the high school team (maybe even go on to play in college if you worked hard enough). But these days the foot skills have become so technical that you almost have to start as a kid and play all the time just to have a chance.”
Really?? …I 100% buy the “Back when we were kids part” (if for no other reason than: I was one of those kids who didn’t pick up my sport until 9th grade and went on to play in college at the division I level). But the “these days” part of his statement really had me thinking: Have sports become so technical that early specialization is pretty much required just to have a chance at making the high school team?
The numbers say NO.
In a recent UCLA survey of NCAA division I athletes, “88% [of student athletes] participated in an average of two to three sports as a children, and 70% did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12.” There is all sorts of other evidence to support this idea that so many successful athletes not only played multiple sports growing up, but often attribute success in their “primary” sport to skills learned from playing other sports.
So why the laser focus on technical skills?
Why is my friend’s “these days” comment so believable? After all, he himself was a top division I soccer player at a major university back in the day, and he currently works in an industry that is intimately involved with a multitude of professional sports and athletes. So his position is probably more deeply informed than the average Joe–soccer–parent. And it’s a statement that I—myself: a former college athlete/coach, and current youth/HS coach in my sport—have actually been stewing over for some time because it is so compelling that… How could it be wrong??
Single-sport specialization is easy, as I have blogged before, and now the focus on technical skills development goes hand-in-hand with this idea. The logic seems easy and straight-forward for all stake-holders*: if a kid wants to get better at [x sport], (s)he should play [x sport] more and learn advanced skills. And by contrast, the argument that playing [y sport] and [z sport] will make a kid better at [x sport]—never mind keep them happier and healthier!—is much harder to pitch/ believe/ sell…
For KIDS—if I want to get better at [x sport], I should play [x sport] more and learn advanced technical skills… Makes sense, right? And I say “if” because unfortunately, this overlooks the fact that quite often kids kinda don’t care about things like skills development. They just want to be kids and have fun, and skills development is an adult/ parent thing. But that’s a whole other can of worms. So…
For PARENTS—again, the logic seems sound: If I want my kid to improve at [x sport], (s)he should spend more time playing [x sport] and learn advanced technical skills… It’s an easy conclusion that makes sense, right? And secretly, I hope that learning technical skills will help my kid of average/ below-average ability find a way to level the playing field against more “advanced” kids. (…But of course those “advanced” kids’ parents are using the same logic). A clear example of this kind of thinking—and its disastrous results—is in teaching kids “advanced” pitches in baseball.
For Coaches, Elite teams, and sports organizations—it’s seems like good logic, made even easier by making for a good business model: your kid will get better at [x sport] if they play more. We provide that opportunity and give him/her “elite” level instruction, which = development of technical skills—for a small fee. In addition, for “elite travel teams”, athletic venues, and the like, it’s a much easier business model to be able to employ “top level” coaches full-time and fill facilities full-time, rather than part-time/seasonally. Single-sport specialization in the name of developing technical skills is a business solution that’s easy to sell and seems to make sense for everyone. This fact in isolation is not good or bad; it’s just the way it is.
But the numbers don’t lie.
“88% [of student athletes] participated in an average of two to three sports as a children, and 70% did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12.”
Thus, a laser-focus on skills development has become a major component (driver?) in the cascade of youth sports towards early single-sport specialization, and it’s based on flawed logic that is easy to buy (and sell, apparently).
As the saying goes: If it was easy (…and as lined with gold as single-sports specialization), everyone would be doing it. It’s certainly easy to say and write about “multi-sport”, but much harder to do something about it (trust us… we know!). Still, there are some pretty amazing things happening out there on this front. A couple of nice examples:
Also, I was told recently that one of these “Elite” teams/camps/clinics/etc organizations staged a “recruiting showcase,” where the dozens of college coaches who came to recruit young athletes competed themselves in an organized, highly competitive 3v3 basketball tournament. The catch? This organization—3d Lacrosse—has nothing to do with basketball, and they did this to show their lacrosse athletes the importance of playing other sports and how skills from a sport like basketball can enhance their performance on the lacrosse field.
These are just a couple of encouraging instances where multi-sports participation is being actively encouraged. It’s more than just passing past-tense anecdotes about sports superstars who played other sports as kids. Paths to Multi-sport benefits/ development/ lifestyle can be taught, adopted. And yes, they can be sold and exploited too, but based on the numbers and results, this seems like a better path forward for all the stake-holders* than: “You know your son will never make the high school soccer team if he doesn’t play on the travel team first.” (…Yes, someone actually said that to me once… when my son was in kindergarten… and wasn’t eligible for travel soccer for another 3 years).
* And just a note on “Stake-holders” …Really!?!? We have “stake-holders” now in youth sports??? But again: that’s a whole other can of worms for a different day.
“Back when we were kids: if you were a reasonably good athlete, you could probably kick a soccer ball for the very first time in 7th or 8th grade and...
Technical skills vs. “Back when we were kids…”
October 30, 2015
We did it: our 8yo son is about to start playing for a soccer team that requires a 10-month commitment. It’s exactly 180–degrees opposite of...
August 12, 2015
For the first time, we ran a 4-day “Sports IQ Camp” over Winter Break, and a dozen incredible kids participated! The initial idea was to teach them ho...