Sunday, April 24, 2011

When Should Your Kid Specialize in One Sport?

There's a good article in today's Bucks County Courier Times on this question, and it's worth a read if you have a kid in middle school, or, heck, even in elementary school. Sure, Bucks County is the land of covered bridges, preserved farms, a place with great cupcakes, a canal to ride your bike on and a whole bunch of wonderful things, and this paper has writers that match up well, in my humble opinion, with those in big cities. You can read the article here.

Now, if you're about my age, don't have kids, pulled a Rip Van Winkle or have lived as a recluse in a remote cave in Borneo for the past 20 years, you might think that this suggestion is crazy. You would figure that the best boy athletes would play football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. I'm sure that as you're thinking that you're using you're typewriter, your rotary dial phone and an abacus to balance your checkbook. That's how out of touch you'd be.

I see it already in middle school, where kids play travel soccer and nothing but and girls play travel softball and nothing but. It's almost as though they and their parents have joined a cult that worships a big time commitment, lots of driving, and a messiah in the form of a scholarship, a lot of aid, or at least a preferred admission to an excellent college as a result of the commitment. The last time I checked, though, none of the teams is named the Golden Calves.

But still, I wonder about these commitments, and I can share a story. My daughter plays two sports and will go to a high school that should enable her to play three. She's a pretty good athlete (this comment coming from other parents, as I'm usually the one to push her to do better, inspired by a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I read in a book on the Indiana Hoosiers and Bobby Knight that suggest that we all crave someone who inspires us to be the best we can be, but I digress), and she enjoys the change in sports as much as those who live in the Northeast enjoy the change of seasons. She has a friend who is one of the best softball players in her grade in the school district, and they were talking about the middle school team. My daughter commented that the season should be fun. To which the response was, "Softball. Fun?" The girl was serious, and it appeared from her tone that softball seemed to be a chore. This at the age of 14.

The travel softball commitment is 11 months a year, pretty much, 3 days a week in the off-season and then about 5 days a week during the good-weather months, at least in the Middle Atlantic region. Weekends pretty much are dedicated to tournaments, where on the first day a team plays three games to get seeded for the elimination round the next day, and the next day you can play as many as four games (depending on how many teams are in the tournament) if you keep winning. Everyone gets Easter weekend off, and some get Mother's Day weekend off, but pretty much from late March to early August there is a tournament every weekend, and there are two practices per week and perhaps a game during the week too.

You had better like your coaches, your teammates and their parents, as there is a lot of togetherness.

And you had better like [okay, Mad Lib time, list a sport to fill in the blank]. Because, if you don't, well, you might turn around in your late teens or later wishing that you had been more of a kid and less of a semi-professional and had tried different sports and had different kids as teammates. It's a lot to ask of pre-teens and young teenagers to make such an extensive commitment to a single sport.

And, of course, you must ask the question: who is this for? The kid? The parents? The coaches (many of whom are parents). What purpose is this type of commitment serving? What voids are the parents filling in their lives? Do the kids really enjoy the team (outside of feeling elite because they made a travel team and other kids did not)? Are the coaches committed to putting the best team on the field (translated, are they willing to bench their own kids if they are not part of the best 9 if it's softball, best 11 if it's soccer and best 5 if it's basketball)? How much of a meritocracy are we talking about?

And, the fact that someone has to use the word meritocracy makes the whole conversation seem somewhat ludicrous, doesn't it? These are kids we are talking about, and they should be given the opportunity to be kids. My daughter elected not to play travel this year (quite frankly, as parents we couldn't make the commitment to getting her to practices at teams that are about 1/2 hour away), and one of her reasons was that all her friends who played travel could talk about was softball and that they didn't have lives beyond it. That soured her on the sport, as did the acting out of some parents last year and some aspects of one of the worst words in all of travel softball, "daddyball," (something from which, thankfully, she did not suffer directly). That has put her at a disadvantage in getting playing time for the school team, but so be it. The other night in a rec league game, wearing shorts on a 40+-degree night with a 15 mile an hour wind, I saw her out there laughing with a few of her teammates, one of whom was a travel teammate last year.

I didn't see her do much of that on her travel team last year (then again, they lost a bunch more than they won, so admittedly there was a "cause and effect" correlation).

And she's a happy kid, too (this not only from our observations, but from teachers and coaches).

So, should your kid specialize? My advice would be only if that's what the child wants to do. If you have a kid who just loves basketball, then that love of the sport will be a guide. But, even then, it might be fun for her or him to play in the rec league in soccer in the fall, just to get some running in, just to be with different kids, and just to get a sense of what it's like to being part of a team where perhaps she/he is not the absolute star. There are lessons to be learned -- on playgrounds, in working out with mom or dad, in rec leagues, and, yes, on travel teams.

But one of the lessons for parents everywhere to remember is that kids are kids, so let's not waste youth on the young by compelling them to grow up too fast.


Randall said...

I always find your discussions on travel sports interesting. I've had 2 boys graduate high school thus far, both heavily involved in sports in high school. The first did not participate in travel sports (other than 1 year of bball), the other played travel soccer through high school. Fortunately his travel coach was the laid back sort.

My daughter is now in high school and plays travel soccer. She also plays soccer, basketball, and track in high school. My opinion is that she's a better overall athlete - and a better soccer player - for playing more than 1 sport. Plus, she is happier.

My observation after watching several years worth of high school athletes: with rare exceptions, the kids that specialize are not better than the kids who play multiple sports. If a kid is truly on the track to a college scholarship it might make sense to specialize in late middle school, otherwise it makes no sense.

Bomber Girl said...

I agree with your opinion/advice: if the kids wants to concentrate in one sport, they are probably enjoying it, so why not? For the rest of the universe, there is a great benefit to mixing it up a bit - different parts of the body get a work out and also avoid too much stress in the same spots (joints and otherwise - mental health included), plus mixing with different kids and all sorts of good stuff, as you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Any kid who is pigeon holed in one sport before high school is being mis treated... and youth coaches who don't allow kids in other sports should be banned from leagues...our town had a kid who got told he could only do basketball for years because of his height...about his junior year a cross town rival started getting college offers for the 1st kid tried football as a junior...he was better than average but limited cause he gave away years as a one sport basketball was sad he had to take small college offers in both sports...where he probably had D-1 talent in football...DON"T LET YOUR KID PLAY FOR A YOUTH DICTATOR