When Should our Kids Start Specializing in a Sport?

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Although I love running (obviously) to this day still, if my mom hadn’t pulled me out of the intense club track team I was on, I may have never continued running.

I began running at an early age (6 years old) and was pretty darn good. I ran a 2:48 880 yards when I was only 7 years of age, ran a 5:35 mile when I was 9 years old, and was a bit burnt out from the sport at around 11 years of age.

Why? Because I was focused on winning and not enough people were telling me
that if I didn’t win, life was going to be alright. I was stressed out before races, got asthma that I believe to this day was psychosomatic , cried if I didn’t place in the top 3. Although, I didn’t realize it then, I was not having a fun childhood in regards to running, but a pressure-packed stress-induced one. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, my mom saw what this intensity was doing to me and pulled me out the club team I was on.

Although I loved to run, I loved all sports. I would have played football (if my mom allowed it), but I still played organized baseball , basketball, soccer, and even was on a swim team for a season or two. I never specialized in a sport. Even when I was running at a very serious level (age 6-10), I still took time off for other sports, and by no means ran all year round.

Not until the age of 16 (my junior year) did I finally run throughout the entire year. And do I think I would have been a better HS runner if I had run everyday of every year from the age of 6 on? Absolutely not! I actually know (and the medical research back this up) that by playing soccer, basketball, baseball, and swimming, allowed me to use different muscle groups and avoid injury. I was never injured because of a sport un til college (where I ran XC, indoor, and outdoor track @ The University of Pennsylvania) and that was only for the indoor track season my freshman year.

Let’s fast forward 15-20 years to the present day, where more kids are having sports related/induced injuries than ever before. I can’t tell you how many kids I hear and see have stress and micro fractures, tendentious, knee problems, shoulder problems, etc. It’s ridiculous! The cause…kids focusing on one sport or playing one sport 365 days out of the year.

I think as a society we need to take a collected deep breath and exhale. More is not always better when it comes to kids and sports. Starting your 5 year old little girl in gymnastics all year long will not guarantee she’s on the cover of a Wheaties box in the 2020 Olympics. I would argue that you are actually hurting your child’s chances (even if he/she does have natural ability) at becoming an Olympian or professional athlete by focusing on one sport at such a young age.

Think of it this way, does a genius kid become dumb if we put her in a school that isn’t as academically enriching as the one down the street? Doe s the child prodigy not learn to play beautiful music if he’s not given a Yamaha or Steinway to
practice on? of course not. And so is true with a gifted athlete. Of course one needs to practice, have determination, and possess a good work ethic to get better in any sport; but talent is a key ingredient to becoming a scholarship, professional, or Olympic athlete; not limiting a child to one sport for the next 12-13 years of his/her life.

Read the excerpt below:

“In 1985, a study by the Swedish Tennis Association suggested that early specialization is unnecessary for players to achieve high performance levels in tennis. Among other things, this study found that the players who were part of the Swedish tennis “miracle” of the 1980s, including the great Bjorn Borg, were keenly active in a range of sports until the age of 14 and did not begin to specialize until about the age of 16.” (Launder, 174). (Associated Content)

At Marathon Coaching Consultants we coach many different athletes of all ages and abilities. As the high school distance and Cross Country Coach at Mountain Pointe High School, in Ahwatukee, AZ I am keenly aware of the different levels, ages, and abilities of my runners. I don’t necessarily run a top freshman runner the same way I would run a top junior or senior runner because of their physical and emotional maturity. I want all my athletes to continue to improve every year with me, and never have a stale or plateau year (unless due to injury or illness of some sort). And this occurs on my team because of the manner in which I approach my athletes – as individuals and not as “the kid who I need to work as hard as I can, no matter what the negative affect on him, so as long as I look like a great coach.”

I have never been a high mileage type of coach for this reason – especially with youth and high school athletes. Because even if a child/young person could handle the work load of high mileage training, he would definitely improve, but at what cost? I, as a coach, by heaping on mile after mile of training, am rolling the dice on this athlete’s future in regards to his mental and physical well being. And that’s a risk I am not going to take just to say I coached a runner who took 1st place at State. I want my athletes to run because they enjoy it. No point doing anything if you don’t enjoy it, in my humble opinion – seems simple, but how many people really live their lives this way?

Let your child enjoy sports. I know there’s pressure out there to have your child be on 4 traveling teams, 1 all-star team, a summer league, etc…But wait until he/she is at least in high school for all of that. Childhood should be about experiencing as much as possible in all disciplines. Winning should not be the goal in youth sports. Learning how to play a sport, improving skills, understanding the nuances of a sport, should be the first set of goals in youth sports.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not one who believes everyone deserves a medal. Because there is a huge value in learning how to both win and lose in any competition; but at the same instance, if we teach and coach our children about how to become good team players, have SMART (Specific Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic, Time-based) goals, learn how to play the game the right way, to have a good work ethic, and truly enjoy what he/she is doing, than as parents/coaches/educators we have done our job.

In the end, your high school athlete will most likely need to make a choice on a particular sport if he is talented enough to play or perform at the next level. But that choice should be because he wants to play at the next level, enjoys the sport, and wishes to see how far he can go in this arena. But to think before the age of 12 – 14 years of age, he needs to be routinely put in a batting cage and take 500 swings, swim 100s of laps in the pool, or practice 30 yard passing plays for hours on end to become the next Major Leaguer, Olympian, or NFL star QB, than you are simply missing the point of youth sports…

To have fun!

Below are a list of links to articles that relate to this topic of youth specialization:


  1. Jessica says

    Good post, Dave,and I totally agree. Thanks for being such a good coach to our little ones. Your love for sports and patience for coaching are visible to all. Jessica Grady


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