Archive for the ‘Specialization concerns’ Category

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: The Pressure on Kids — and Their Parents — to Choose Just One Sport

On the last day of the year of 2016, Karen Crouse, a long-time sportswriter for the New York Times, did a long article about how the football coaches are Ohio State and Clemson, two of the top four teams this past season, love to recruit athletes who are multi-sport performers.

In the article, Crouse spoke with Urban Meyer, the head coach at Ohio State, and with Dabo Swinney, the head coach at Clemson, and both men made the case that they much preferred to recruit those top athletes who were had played more than one sport in high school. Most of their recruits, of course, were top HS football stars, and that’s the only sport they played. But there were others, such as Sam Hubbard of Ohio State, who was recruited as a top lax player and was actually playing lax at Ohio State before he made the switch to football.

Swinney pointed to his starting QB at Clemson, Deshaun Watson, who had been a star in basketball in HS as well as a top football player. And on a more personal note, Swinney has three young kids who all play football, basketball, and baseball. Urban Meyer, who signed out of HS as a pro baseball player, eventually played college football for four years once his baseball career came to an end.

In fact, Meyer was recently distressed when one of his HS-age daughters decided to give up playing HS basketball in order to play volleyball all year round. Meyer was torn because he’s an old-school guy who knows the merits of not specializing.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM

While Crouse pointed out in her article that specialization too soon in a sport is a growing trend, what she missed was that no one knows how to stp this from occurring. Too many parents — and their kids – start to feel the subtle yet strong psychological pressure to specialize in just one sport at increasingly younger ages. Fifteen years ago, it was common place for a talented athlete to have one sport they liked to play all-year round – just so they wouldn’t fall behind their peers in that sport. But they also played perhaps one or two other sports, usually right through HS.

So a kid might specialize in soccer, but also enjoyed playing for their HS’s basketball and baseball team. But unfortunately, as more and more parents perceive that the pressure to concentrate on just one sport is increasing with every passing year, now we find more and more kids not only just playing one sport, but they simply give up on playing other sports. That’s a shame. Even worse, as we know, overspecialization often leads to repetitive use injuries as well as burnout.

I don’t know how many years I have been writing about, and talking about, this disturbing trend, but it seems as though at least 20 years. It is a real issue, and yet, because too few parents seem to want to rock the boat, they simply follow along and let their kid specialize. The problem is, even if a kid is a talented athlete, if he or she hasn’t been exposed to playing a variety of sports when they’re in youth and HS sports, they may find themselves focusing on the wrong sport, and then have difficulty in making the transition to another sport. Trust me, a kid like Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard is a rare exception these days. That’s why Karen Crouse wrote about him.

Even worse, because we know that so few kids ever progress to play in college (even after specializing in one sport), they have, in effect, gambled that they would be good enough to advance to a college team and thus bypassed all the fun and joy they would have had in playing other sports in HS. That, it seem to me, is most disappointing.

My own three kids played a variety of sports in HS. My son John played soccer right through HS, and was a member of the school’s state team that was in the NYS semi-finals. In ice hockey, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer, and in baseball, he was good enough to have been drafted by the Chicago White Sox. He eventually signed with Chicago, but also played junior varsity ice hockey in college and intramural soccer. My daughter Alyssa was the captain of her HS swim team, and a top scorer on the HS lax team. And Samantha was an outstanding soccer player, superb HS basketball player, and her best sport was lax, which she played in college.

Yes, all three kids played on various travel teams. But if you ask them, they will tell you how much they thoroughly enjoyed playing with their close friends and classmates on their respective HS teams. Those memories are theirs for life, and they certainly wouldn’t have had them if they just focused on one solitary sport.

It sure would be great if I could get parents to finally wake up and ask the tough questions about whether specializing is truly the right move for their son and daughters. But alas, it’s so easy and tempting to caught up in the dream of your kid becoming a college scholarship recruit.

 

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SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Do We Force for Kids to Choose One Sport by the Time they are 10?

We have inadvertently created a problem for our kids over the last 20-25 years, and why I understand why travel team programs share a lot of the blame, I also feel that ambitious Moms and Dads have had a major role in allowing this problem to grow.

I’m talking about the reality that in just about every town and community across the US, travel programs in most every sport have cropped up everywhere. That’s okay, but what concerns me is that so many travel programs are aimed at kids around the age of 9 or 10.

Here’s what occurs. If a kid tries out for a local travel team at age 10 and subsequently gets cut, then for the most part, that child’s career in that sport is pretty much over. That’s because when a youngster is cut from a travel team, psychologically they feel so burned by that experience that they rarely come back to that sport ever again. In effect, these kids are transformed into “has beens” at a very tender age.

BEING FORCED TO MAKE A DIFFICULT DECISION….BUT WHY?

This past week I did a sports parenting seminar for the Smithtown (LI) Boosters Club, and during the question-and-answer session of my presentation, one of the Dads from Smithtown asked a very precise question – a question that, to me, truly captured the essence of what so many sports parents and their athletes are confronting these days.

And it focuses directly on this issue of specializing at a very young age.

Okay, here’s the question: your 10-year-old kid is a good, natural all-around athlete, and he wants to play multiple sports. But the travel coaches in your town tell him (and the parents) that he needs to make a clear choice now and to specialize in just one.

Now, the boy, an all-round athlete, would gladly play any number of sports and if he could, play them all year round on various travel teams. But of course, there’s just so many hours in the day, and his schooling takes up a lot of those hours.

But as this Dad pointed out, if the 10-year-old boy DOESN’T focus on just one sport, then the boy will feel — or fear –that they won’t be seen as being on the “fast track”  as one of the elite or more experienced players in that sport when they eventually try out for the HS or more advanced travel teams down the road. Only those kids who decided to specialize will be viewed as having more experience, have played against better competition, and have a real advantage when HS tryouts begin.

Even worse, there will often be a PERCEPTION from the HS and travel coaches that the youngster either wasn’t good enough at age 10 to make a travel team, or that he made a real mistake by not focusing on just one sport.

This, my friends, goes to the very core of the travel team dilemma…what does a 10-year-old  athlete decide to do?

And when he turns to his Mom or Dad for advice, what do you suggest?

Just pick one sport, and hope for the best? As to the other sports that the child loves playing, they simply get pushed off to the side and the kid can only play them, in effect, for recreation?

And of course, remember that this key decision usually takes place several years before a kid goes into adolescence. So that you have no idea just how big the kid is going to become in his teenage years, or how much his skill in that sport will develop?

WHAT AS A PARENT DO YOU DO?

Or more specifically, why do we allow this to happen?

In my perspective, this is a problem that we have invented for ourselves…and for our kids. Our children have to choose their sport when they’re only 10 or 11. The callers this AM all felt the same way. They understand that being on a travel team for a youngster is a big deal, a real badge of honor, but the parents also understood that being on a travel team can cost $5,000 and up. And if you have multiple kids playing sports, that gets into real money.

One caller complained that on his son’s travel baseball team, there were maybe 3 or 4 top players, but that every other kid was “pedestrian” or average at best. Yet they all paid a lot of money and the average kids assume that the more the play, the more their skills will improve. I pointed out that, yes, their skills will improve, but not necessarily to the level of being a top player.

The point is, travel teams are funded by hopeful parents who feel their child, in order to succeed to the next level, need to specialize in one sport in order to get ahead. Travel programs feed into this mentality. And as noted many times, travel programs can charge as much money as they want.

Is there an answer to this dilemma?

In truth, probably not. Every sports parent and child has to figure out what’s going to work for them. But from my experience, it sure would be a lot easier if travel programs stuck to just one season at a time. When young kids are “forced” to play just one sport all year round, this is where you hear about “burn out” and “repetitive use injuries” – new developments that didn’t occur 25 years ago with kids.

It would be nice to add some more sanity back into kids playing the sports they love. All of them.

 

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Be Careful of Giving Your Kid Too Much

 

 

Keep Them Hungry

By Doug Abrams

 

When I was a senior at Clarke High School in Westbury, New York several years ago, I was president of the Hockey Club, which hosted a Montreal high school team for three days.  We had a great time playing three games, attending classes, and touring New York City together.

When I reviewed the near-final agenda with assistant principal Arnold Wallace a week before the Canadian team’s arrival, we noticed an open hour here and there.  I suggested filling every hour with a scheduled activity, but he thought that some free time would help sustain both teams’ enthusiasm before the Clarke contingent’s visit to Montreal the following year. 

“These three days are like a Thanksgiving dinner,” Dr. Wallace said.  “If you overstuff your guests with food, they leave the table never wanting to look at food again.  But if they leave the table a bit hungry, they will look forward to the next meal.”  We provided free time, and he was right.

The Youth Sports “Dinner Table”

Particularly at the pre-teen levels, parents and coaches need to think of each youth sports season as a Thanksgiving dinner.  To help players look forward to returning next year, give them a bit less play now than they want.  Let them finish this season hungry for another “meal.”

 

Too many parents and coaches do just the reverse by overloading pre-teens with practices and games.  Seasons sometimes last six months or more, plus playoffs and tournaments, longer than the seasons played by the pros for multimillion-dollar salaries.  Seasons grow even more bloated when parents choose early specialization in one sport, which Bob Bigelow rightfully calls “one of the most prevalent and disturbing trends in organized youth sports” because “[t]he big machine doesn’t stop eating until it has chewed up all twelve months of the calendar year.” 

 

Some pre-teens play on two teams in one season or play seasons that overlap with one another.  Either way, organized sports chews up even more time that would be better spent on schoolwork or non-athletic leisure activities that mark a healthy childhood.  Add other worthwhile extracurricular activities such as music or scouts, and children can quickly lose the healthy free time that they, like adults, need for spontaneous activities that help maintain enthusiasm.

 

Then we have teams that simply play too many games.  When a pre-teen hockey team or baseball team plays a 70-game schedule, for example, I doubt that the team necessarily produces players who emerge twice as talented as they would be if the team played only 35 games.  The Law of Diminishing Returns tells us that the 53rd game does not do much for skills.  The second half of a distended schedule intrudes on schoolwork and, I suspect, also increases the risk of avoidable injury when fatigued players compete in as many as four or five games each weekend.

 

Overscheduling the youngsters now (overstuffing them at the youth sports “dinner table”) risks burnout before they leave elementary school.  Burnout is real.  In his excellent book, Just Let the Kids Play, Bob Bigelow quotes former San Francisco Giants baseball player, Erik Johnson:  “I see a lot of burnout. It used to be high school, but now it is ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-old kids.  The kids get fried.”       

 

“Stoke the Fires”

 

Studies indicate that about 70% of children who play a youth sport quit playing that sport by the time they are 13.  Some youngsters doubtlessly stop playing when they realize that they lag behind their peers in skills or strength, and other youngsters quit when they develop new interests or find part-time employment. But many teens who cite “new interests” or “part-time employment” probably began looking elsewhere when they grew sick and tired of playing.  Seven years or so is a long time for anyone — adult or child — to remain passionate about a pressure-driven voluntary activity.  When adults start the youth sports pressure cooker by the time their children turn six, the seven-year timer sounds at about thirteen, just when kids begin turning away in significant numbers.

 

Many parents and coaches overschedule youth leaguers with an eye toward collegiate athletic scholarships, which only a minuscule percentage of youth leaguers ever receive.  The cruel irony is that with 70% of child athletes quitting by their early teen years from burnout and other adult-induced pressures, premature overscheduling undoubtedly aborts many more collegiate playing careers than it creates.  Some children who quit playing before middle school would have had a better chance of playing college sports if their parents and coaches had managed their schedules more carefully.

 

Maintaining a pre-teen player’s enthusiasm for the game means listening carefully to the player during the season, and then continuing to listen carefully after the last game.  The train is on the right track if the player looks forward to practices and games, and then afterwards says something like, “I wish we still had more games, and I can’t wait till the next season.”  A train wreck may be in the picture if the player pleads stomach aches or other excuses to miss practices or games late in a long season, and then looks back with something like, “Gee, I’m tired and it sure was a long year.” 

 

For thoughtful parents and coaches alike, the aim is to “stoke the fires” within players during their earliest years.  The adults’ ultimate success — never seen on the scoreboard — is measured by how many players re-enroll the following season.  Parents and coaches succeed when their pre-teens still love the game as teenagers and have not joined the 70% or so of youth leaguers who drop out by that age.  The key to this success is to “keep them hungry” from season to season.

 

 

 

[Source: Bob Bigelow, Tom Moroney and Linda Hall, Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child’s Fun and Success in Youth Sports (2001), pp. 97, 113]

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Maybe We’re Doing it Wrong here in the US…

For years in this country, active sports parents have instinctively bought into the concept that the sooner your youngster specializes in just one sport, the more accelerated their sports career will become.

As a result, we have kids as young as 5 or 6 in this country who are only playing soccer all year round…or just baseball…or ice hockey…or whatever.  All other sports are seen as simply distracting and get in the way of the larger goal.

But now comes news from Canada that their athletic governing body is re-thinking about early specialization, and they’ve decided that this kind of approach just isn’t working well – especially as the kids grow into their later teenage years. The Canadians are now shifting toward “long-term athletic development” in the hopes that this new kind of approach will take them to greater success in the Olympic games and other international competition.

Now, this is a topic that I’ve written about before. But maybe the time has really come to re-evaluate just how important it is to push our kids into specialization. Example: on my show yesterday, I talked about a Rutgers University football player named Patrick Kivlehan. Patrick had been a stand-out football and baseball player in HS, but once he was recruited for Rutgers’ football, he never picked up a bat and glove again.

He played four years of football for the Scarlet Knights, but then, during the middle of his senior year, the baseball bug bit him, and he asked if he could try out for the Rutgers’ baseball team.

Most of the time, big-time baseball programs like Rutgers say no to tryouts. Remember, this was a kid who hadn’t played baseball in four years. But it’s to the baseball coaching staff’s credit to let Patrick try it, because he ended up not only being Rutgers’ best player this spring, but he led the Big East in HR’s, RBI’s and batting average.

Sure enough, he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 4th round and now he’s off to pursue a career in pro ball.

Bottom line? Just another case of where specializing in one sport really wasn’t necessary. If you’re truly that good as an athlete, don’t worry – your abilities will surface in one sport or another.

A Fresh, New, and Intriguing Way to Do Kids’ Sports

Danny Bernstein grew up on Long Island where he played a variety of sports, most notably soccer. He was the goalkeeper on the Roslyn HS team which won the first NYS HS championship. Danny then went onto Amherst College where he continued playing soccer, and captained his college team.

After graduating, he spent a number of years in the family business. But then, a few years ago, he had a revelation that he wanted to get involved in sports again, and also, give back to sports in some way. He did just that by creating a company called Backyard Sports, (www.byardsports.com) which allows kids to enjoy playing sports while eliminating the outside pressures of parents, coaches, travel teams, and so on.

The result is a unique program where youngsters “mix and match” in something akin to the old standard of pick-up games, where you find yourself playing with kids from all over. The idea, of course, is for the youngsters to make new friendships, learn how to become a leader, and most importantly, to enjoy playing sports without feeling that it’s all about winning all the time.

Kids find this approach refreshing and liberating. So do their parents. Each session starts with one of the “teaching coaches” at Backyard spending a little time instructing the kids on a particular skill or drill. From there, teams are selected, and play begins. Like when we were kids, these youngsters pretty much regulate themselves — there’s no need for refs or umps, and of course, there are no league standings or playoffs. It’s all about enjoying the game today…the other stuff is more for the parents anyway.

We had a number of calls on the show this AM all praising what Danny has put together. Maybe, just maybe, parents are beginning to wake up to the reality that kids really need to first develop a passion for their sport before we can expect them to spend 10,000 hours trying to become a pro at it. And that passion is ignited by kids having fun…the kid of fun that Danny Bernstein is advocating. In short, it would seem we’re looking ahead to the future by going back to the old standards of fun from the past.

It’s Official! US Soccer Academy Development is Now Forcing HS Soccer players to choose betwen their varsity team and club team

In a press release that went out nationally last week, the US Soccer Development Academy fired a major salvo at traditional HS varsity programs. The essence of the message? If you entertain any dreams of playing college soccer or even pro soccer, you need to walk away from your local HS team and play exclusively with US Soccer Academy (USSA).

In their release, USSA says that in order for American teams to be competitive against international squads, we need to step up our training program and have HS kids play 10 months of the year, starting in September. That translates into having HS players walk away from their HS team.

My radio guest, Matt Allen, head coach of the boys’ team at Byram Hills HS in Armonk, NY, made it clear that it just isn’t fair to place these kids into this situation. “If you talk to the players themselves, by far the vast majority of them want to play for their HS team – not the club team — during the fall season.” But USSA is no longer giving the kids that choice.

To me, this is really an unnecessary dilemma to force teenage soccer players to choose one or the other. But it’s also a sign of the times as more and more HS athletes are beginning to walk away from their HS teams. The difference, though, is that if the kids make their own decision to walk away from their HS squad, well, that’s their choice. With USSA, they are being told they HAVE to walk away. That’s a big — and significant – difference.

It’s absolutely time for travel programs and HS coaches to finally sit down and work together and figure out a compromise. For example, let the USSA kids play on their HS teams. But during that fall season, allow those kids to spend an extra 1-2 days during the week practicing with the USSA team. At least that’s a start.

 

 

 

Why Force Talented HS Soccer Players to Choose Between their School team and Travel Program?

We all know that life is full of choices – many of them quite difficult — so why put talented soccer players in an awkward spot where they have to choose between two passions? Playing for their HS team or their US Soccer Academy travel team?

But that’s what’s happening with increasing frequency around the country. It’s already happening in Texas, Calfornia, Florida, and now it’s coming to the NY-NJ-CT-PA area. And in talking with Matt Allen, the highly-successful boys’ soccer head coach at Byram Hill HS (Armonk, NY) this AM, I – for one – am not convinced that US Soccer Academy is being smart about telling its players that they have to give up playing with their HS varsity program and devote another 10-weeks of the fall semester to train with USSA.

True, there’s no question that kids who play on select travel teams will be seen by more college coaches during tournaments and showcases. And the level of play is better overall than HS games. But these come with a price: in general, USSA costs money to be on the team (usually between $3,000 to $4,000 a year, not including travel and hotel costs to different tournaments), there’s no guarantee of the amount of playing time a kid will receive, there’s no guarantee of ever getting a college scholarship, and of course, you have to walk away from your local HS team and buddies. That is, during the fall, when they’re going to practice and playing games, you’re getting in your car and driving off to practice on a travel team perhaps an hour away to play with kids from other towns and communities.

As Coach Allen related on my show this AM, it’s a very difficult choice for most young kids to have to make. And from my perspective, there’s no reason to put them and their parents through this. While I understand the travel team coaches and their desire to have the kids practice for another 10 weeks in the fall, I just don’t understand the necessity to force them to quit their HS team. Look, the travel team kids already work out for 10 full months of the year with USSA, so what’s the harm with letting them play for 2 1/2 months on their HS squad? Personally, I think it would give these kids a break from their travel schedule, let them enjoy playing with their home-town friends, and best of all, it would refresh them psychologically. It’s all good.

But to mandate them to quit playing for their HS team? Sorry. It doesn’t work for me. And by the way, hasn’t the time finally come for national travel team programs to finally sit down with state HS athletic associations and work out compromises? That just seems logical, and would help solve a lot of these issues early on.

Why are so many young pitchers suffering serious arm injuries?

There was a disturbing piece that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer last week about two young pitchers from Ohio who had both pitched in the LL World Series a few years ago. They were thrilled to have played in front of thousands in Williamsport, PA.

Problem is, due to overuse of their arms and by throwing too many curve balls, they both had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair their elbows. Can you imagine? Tommy John surgery is usually performed on major leaguers who, in their 20s or 30s, are simply trying to extend their professional careers.

These two kids were 14!

Kyle Cotcamp and Tyler Richards both love baseball, but they both admit that they were overused in LL Baseball and on their travel teams, plus they threw too many curveballs.

As you know, my colleague Steve Kallas and I have been forceful critics for years about why LL Baseball allows kids to throw curveballs. LL points to a recent study from the athletic institute that Dr. James Andrews that says that throwing curve balls probably is not the reason why kids hurt their arms. But Dr. Andrews, who has often said that he’s not in favor of having kids throw breaking balls before they can shave, was so concerned by that study’s conclusions that he recently told the NY Times that he’s worried that parents and coaches will think that it will be seen as a green light to let kids throws deuces and sliders.

In fact, Dr. Andrews says that the study was conducted in a lab, and not in the field, and as such, parents and coaches might not want to rush to embrace it. In other words, he’s saying, in effect, that he’s not so sure that parents can let kids throw curves.

Dr. Timothy Kremchek of the Cincinnati Reds is even more emphatic. He absolutely insists that kids should not be allowed to throw curves before the age of 13.

And finally, Dr. Andrews says that in his research, kids who throw for more than 8 months during the year are 5 times more likely to need surgery!

Bottom line? Parents and youth coaches, here are some simple guidelines:

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw more than 75-80 pitches in a game. And if they do, give them 4 days of rest between starts.

Don’t let any kid under 13 throw a curveball or slider. Let them work on a change-up instead. It’s a much better pitch, and much more effective.

If you’re a parent, even if your kid is the next Sandy Koufax, insist that you keep the pitch count of every performance. That is, don’t necessarily trust the coach.

Finally, let the kid pitch from April through the spring and summer, and maybe into Sept, but then give him the winter off. Let his arm recuperate and get stronger. Too much pitching at a young age can have disastrous results.

What’s your sense of this? Why do you think LL Baseball allows its players to throw curve balls?

Be Careful of Travel Team Hopes and Dreams

One of the more remarkable calls I received on the air last Sunday on WFAN came from a sports mom named Camille who really hit the target regarding kids AND their parents who fall prey to the lure of travel team programs.

In short, before your kid becomes totally seduced by the travel team promises (e.g. you need to specialize in this sport and give up the others, or you stay with this program and there’s a good shot of getting a college scholarship, etc.), just be aware that there are NO studies that suggest that playing on a travel team exclusively will enhance your kid’s chances of getting a scholarship. Furthermore, understand that travel team programs are “for-profit” — meaning that the people who run these organizations are doing it to make money. That means that it’s in their best interest to keep kids signing up and staying with them.

Now, let me add as a disclaimer that I’m not trying to indict all travel programs. That’s not the point. What Camille was suggesting is that too many kids and their parents are swayed into these programs at an early age, that they cost a lot of dough, and that there’s absolutely no guarantee that this will take the kid where they dream of going.

Specialization in team sports usually takes place around the age of 14 or 15, when the athlete can see for himself or herself what their best sport is. They make up their own mind. Then again, if your athlete is extremely talented, there’s no need to specialize in one sport in HS at all. Lebron James, for example, was an All-State wide receiver in football in Ohio while still playing hoops. There are literally hundreds of other examples like that.

Bottom line? Specialization is not usually the answer. And as Camille suggests, be wary of immediately buying into the travel team dream.