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Early Specialization is a Bad Idea

Early Specialization is a Bad Idea

The most common reasons that children initially choose to play baseball or softball are to have fun, learn new skills and make new friends. 

One of the most dramatic developments in youth baseball and softball over the last fifteen years has been the explosive growth, at seemingly early ages, of the number of select, highly competitive sports teams (the so-called elite, travel, select, and premier teams), and the related trend toward early specialization.  There are no longer seasons, just year-long commitments for kids.  The costs and travel distances have gone through the roof.  And the pressure on parents to keep up with the Jones’s has become astronomical.

Crying PlayerThere are many parents who are simply trying to sort out the facts and myths of athletic development.  They are told what to do by other parents and coaches if they want their child to have success in sports.  Yet the path that so many children are following, and in many cases are forced to follow, is not the best path to develop as an athlete, nor as a human being. 

Parents are looking for an edge.  In our increasingly winner-take-all society, parents, coaches and kids appear to be searching desperately for an edge in the often fierce battle for scarce spots on high school varsities.  With the cost of college increasingly out of reach for many families and good paying jobs after college hard to come by, parents and kids are focused on the college athletic scholarships and possible professional careers, an edge which they think select teams and specialization will provide – or, at the very least, a way to keep up with their peers.

Parents believe more is better.  More and more parents are buying into the idea that their child will be unable to attain success or even make a high school or college team without specializing, playing on a select team, playing year round, and attending special camps in the summer.  Many parents have come to believe that more and earlier are somehow better.

Parents think it is a matter of competitive survival.  More parents are signing their children up to play in a select travel program or allowing them to specialize in a single sport at an early age because they feel they have no other choice.  Parents assume that sports are like academics; that because a child who falls behind academically, even in the early grades, may never catch up.  In doing so, many parents appear to be ignoring their own better judgment and intuition (which suggests that early specialization and playing on select travel teams may actually be unhealthy). 

Studies have shown that boys and girls ages 8 to 12, who play multiple sports instead of specializing early, are more physically fit and have better gross motor coordination than those who specialize.  Kids need to build on a strong foundation of movement patterns and skills, not specific, which will make them a more diverse and well rounded athlete.

The majority of studies suggest that early specialization can have significant negative consequences on the development of an athlete over time.  Far from being supported by hard scientific evidence about youth talent development, the trend towards early specialization and playing on travel or select teams at an early age is a bad idea because:

  • It interferes with healthy child development.
  • Comes with psychological risk from stress associated with over-involvement and expectations of parents and others.
  • Doesn’t guarantee future athletic success.
  • Hurts, rather than helps, skill development.
  • Is elitist.
  • Leads to overuse injuries.
  • Promotes adult values and interests.
  • Increases the chances that the child will suffer burnout and quit sports altogether.

If parents choose not to allow their child to specialize or play on a select team too early, not only will they be doing their child a huge favor, but, if enough parents just say no to select teams and early specialization, we can go back to the balanced, child-centered youth sports system our children deserve and reduce the alarming number of overuse injuries kids are suffering.

Hall Of Fame SmoltzLansing, Michigan Babe Ruth League graduate John Smoltz, who was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2015, is an eight-time All-Star and the 16th pitcher in Major League history to reach 3,000 career strikeouts.  Smoltz had an illustrious 21-year career on the field, but missed the entire 2000 season following Tommy John surgery.  Recently, Smoltz has become a serious advocate for raising arm care awareness across amateur baseball.  He addressed the growing concern over Tommy John surgery during the conclusion of his Hall of Fame induction speech:  “It's an epidemic...I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport, that you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports ... Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don't go outside, they don't have fun, they don't throw enough — but they're competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that's why we're having these problems. Please, take care of those great future arms."

Babe Ruth League’s position is that kids should play baseball/softball, soccer, basketball, a musical instrument and specialize later on.  Organized youth baseball/softball programs like Babe Ruth League should be a very prominent part of the growth process for kids.  Babe Ruth League believes in the importance of connecting with all children in a fun and healthy atmosphere, as well as in providing them with many valuable life lessons that extend beyond the field the play.  These life lessons that translate from the playing field to life have always been the reason Babe Ruth League prides itself on being a youth leadership organization, as much as it is a competitive baseball and softball program.

Parents, often times, look for sports to challenge their child; engage them in competition, and set winning as the goal.  Large discrepancies between a child and parent’s interest in sports can have negative psychological effects on the child, or lead to physical injury.  Help us bring back the family tradition of Babe Ruth League where entire neighborhoods gather at the ballpark on warm evenings.  Where parents, relatives and neighbors serve as coaches, umpires, work in the concession stand and in other volunteer positions.  And where, when the game is over, the score doesn’t matter, and everyone is proud to celebrate the accomplishments of all players on both teams. 

Babe Ruth League is a program rich in history, tradition and values…traits that will help your children develop into happy, healthy and successful adults.

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