By Ken Kaiserman
Editor In-Chief
 
Specialization
 
Specialization has been a growing trend and a hot button topic in youth sports for some time. Bo Jackson, Dion Sanders and Jim Thorpe are examples of exceptional athletes that have played multiple professional sports, but it is a rarity today to find kids playing more than one sport successfully even at the high school level. Children today are being forced to specialize in a single sport, at earlier ages, as demands on their time mount and it becomes harder to compete in many sports because so many of the other kids are specializing. Yet, is this in the best interest of our kids?
 
Should He Specialize In Just One Sport?
 
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates that it takes at least 10,000 hours to develop an expertise in anything. The goal of specialization in a particular sport is to actually be able to get to 10,000 hours of practice time, which equates to a bit over three hours a day of practice for 10 years. This isn’t just playing, but actual focused practice with the intention to improve. While playing on travel and all-star teams, and being recognized at a young age with ability in a certain sport makes it somewhat more possible to put in the time, with the kid’s already busy schedules (school demands, homework, video games, television, texting and friends) just getting time to practice is a major accomplishment.
 
 
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Coach’s Corner, Continued
 
Because it is so hard simply to find time to develop an expertise in a particular sport, maybe there is some logic to specializing at even earlier ages; after all, the issues that kids are facing are more than just the time to be good enough to compete and make the high school team, but also that the other kids that they’re trying to compete with for spots on the team or playing time have likely been specializing for years, making it even less likely for anybody to succeed without complete, focused dedication to a single sport. Certainly this is a compelling argument unless you believe in transference.

Playing a specific sport, with focused practice and the intent to get better, will unquestionably help any kid improve. Yet, is it also possible that playing any sport, or doing any athletic activity, can also work to allow for improvement through transference of skills. Does playing basketball help baseball players or does playing football help to make a kid get better at water polo? Especially for younger children, there are great advantages to playing multiple sports and there is transference between activities allowing for partial accumulation of the hours required for expertise simply by developing athleticism through participation in any sport. The aggressiveness and willingness to be involved with physical contact developed as a football player cannot be matched in other sports. The footwork of a soccer or basketball player certainly helps in baseball. The conditioning of running or swimming, along with the unique muscular development, is certainly transferable to any sport that a kid may eventually specialization in.
 
 
There are many examples of transference in the professional ranks. Tim Duncan (Swimming) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Soccer and Handball) didn’t even start playing basketball until high school. Danny Ainge played professional baseball before embarking on his NBA career with the Celtics. Renaldo Nehemiah was a world record setting hurdler who, after his Olympic career, spent 3 years with the 49ers. Bob Hayes was the world’s fastest man and Olympic gold medal winner before embarking on a Hall of Fame NFL career. Yet, transference alone isn’t enough of a reason not to specialize since it is not absolute and there is no true substitute for playing a specific sport, as evidenced by the one of the greatest athletes and basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan’s, failed attempt at baseball.
Coach’s Corner, Continued
 
First, there is a reduced risk of injury; most youth sports injuries deal with repetitive stress issues, which are most often caused by playing a single sport year-round. Kids who play multiple sports generally get more well-rounded athletic development, including cardio and muscle toning. Socialization is also improved since relationships are fostered throughout the year with a wider variety of kids. Finally, parent/child interactions are often better with multi-sport athletes and there is less chance of burnout.
 
 
So, since transference isn’t enough, it’s a good thing there are other advantages to playing different sports.  Specialization simply isn’t the best way to enhance early signs of talent. Kids all develop at different rates and a child’s love of one sport may change over time. Furthermore, when youth leagues use arbitrary cut off dates to determine age kids on the older end of the year tend to outperform the younger kids which can yield an inaccurate understanding of the kids actual ability, making it beneficial not to “throw all your eggs into one basket”.

The key is that kids need to play sports for fun. The average NBA player, in the 07/08 season, was about 6’7” tall and the average NFL player (including receivers and other “smaller” positions) was 6’3” and 245 pounds. Pros that are below average in size tend to be extraordinary in other areas: speed, strength and/or leaping ability. Fewer than 15% of all men in the United States are over 6’ tall, and fewer than 4% are over 6’2” tall. Certainly there are sports that will not be appropriate for most kids, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t play those sports as kids or through high school.

Smaller kids are less likely to play in the NBA or the NFL, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t play football or basketball. First, the probability of playing beyond high school in any sport is, essentially, zero. However, due to the transference of mental and physical skills, it’s still beneficial to play multiple sports. Although the specific skill development may potentially improve if the kid specialized, the benefits of playing more sports is still greater.

The determining factor for specialization has to be to listen to your kids. They have to play sports to have fun and not for a college scholarship or professional career. If you child wants to play a particular sport, their future prospects of success in that sport should not be a factor; the key is that your child loves to play that sport. Trust in the transference of skills as well as the other benefits of playing multiple sports. Soon enough, due to their skills, size or other factors, no matter how good they are, everybody is told that they can’t play anymore. Parents shouldn’t be the ones to tell their children not to play because a certain sport isn’t likely to be their best. Every kid should play to have fun, and if they’re having fun, play.

Care to comment on this month's article or poll questions or results?

Please visit The SportsKids Newsletter Forum and have your say!

SPORTSKIDS Trivia Test

We’ve got great Trivia games for beginning to master SportsKids – try our “Title Fight” Sports Grab Bag Game and find the answers to these questions at the bottom.
 
1) Who is the first golfer after Jack Nicklaus to win 8 PGA tour events during his first 6 years on the tour?
A)   Tiger Woodsn
B)   Ernie Els
C)   Greg Norman
D)   Phil Mickelson
 
2) Which British bare-knuckles champion invented the boxing glove and wrote the first set of boxing rules?
A)   Jack Broughton
B)   John Sullivan
C)   James Corbett
D)   Jess Willard
 
3) Who won the first Boston Marathon?
A)   John McDermott
B)   Don Kaiserman
C)   Michael McPhearson
D)   Pat Riley
 
4) Who was the first golfer to win an event on the PGA and Senior PGA Tours in the same calendar year?
A)   Jack Nicklaus
B)   Arnold Palmer
C)   Lee Trevino
D)   Raymond Floyd
 
5) Who was the first jockey to ride two Triple Crown winners?
A)   Lafite Pincay
B)   Willie Shoemaker
C)   Eddie Arcaro
D)   Eddie Delahousee
 
There are trivia games in general sports, baseball, football, hockey, basketball and “Sports Math” in three different skill levels. Test your sports skills against kids around the world in the SportsKids Game Section.

 
Answers: (1) D (2) A (3) A (4) D (5) C
SPORTSKIDS Sports Poll
 
1) How many sports do you or your child play each year?
- 1
- 2
- 3
- 4 or more
 
2) What is the largest number of sports your or your child played in any single year?
- 1
- 2
- 3
- 4 or more
 
3) Do you believe that skills can be “transferred” from one sport to another?
- Yes
- No
 
4) Should kids specialize in a single sport before getting to high school?
- Yes
- No
 
Previous Poll results:
 
1) Have you ever had a child involved in what you’d call a “Coaching Disaster”?
- Yes (64.71%)
- No (35.29%)
 
2) Which do you feel is the worst offense for a coach?
- Favoring his child (41.18%)
- Not communicating with kids and parents (23.53%)
- Not knowing the game or how to run
  practices (32.35%)
 
3) What’s the best way to handle a coaching disaster?
- Complain to somebody about the coach (35.29%)
- Quit the team (17.65%)
- Complain to the coach (47.06%)
 
4) Have you ever complained and had favorable results?
- Yes (44.12%)
- No (55.88%)
 
5) Which is worse?
- Yelling at the kids (50.00%)
- Not knowing anything about the sport (50.00%)
 

Cast your vote on these and other sports polls at SportsKids.com