In the northern Minnesota city where I grew up, just 150 miles south of the Canadian border, hockey was, and forever will be, king. Most kids in the area played soccer, dabbled in baseball, took swimming or tennis lessons, and didn't settle in one until they were older, usually in high school. Then there were the hockey players. These boys were already skating, passing, and shooting several days a week by the time they hit first grade. Everybody knew that if a kid wasn't all-in on hockey at a very young age, he could kiss any dreams of making varsity 10 years later goodbye.
The funny thing is that I distinctly remember many of those stud hockey players sucking at gym class. You'd expect their elite rink skills to translate to dodgeball in elementary school, basketball in junior high, or volleyball in high school, but instead they'd often be the ones lofting air balls and tripping over their own feet. Meanwhile, the kids who played multiple sports could sprint, jump, kick, get nothing but net, and cream the hockey players at the President's Fitness Test.
Specialization for all sorts of sports is much more widespread today. Kids today compete in leagues year-round, attend skill camps in between, and travel to tournaments on weekends and holidays. However, piles of research tells us this shift toward early specialization is backfiring big time.
"It's intuitive to think that the more a kid practices a certain sport, the better at it he or she will get," says Martin Camiré, a sports psychology and youth development expert at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Confining a younger child to one sport won't ensure that she becomes a star, he says, and it may even make her worse at her "specialty" down the road. "Kids who specialize too young get to 15 or 16 years old, and their bodies are already breaking down and they're psychologically burned out," Camiré says. That's because they've missed out on the crucial physical and psychological development that comes from dabbling in multiple sports.
To prevent that from happening, from the time kids enter sports, usually around five or six years old, until they are about 10 or 11, Camiré says the priority should be developing physical literacy — all the technical and motor skills required to run, kick, jump, and so on — rather than honing the perfect slap shot. "Something they've learned in soccer or football might actually make them a better hockey player," he says. More importantly, since only a small percentage of kids go on to play college or professional sports, having a wide range of skills in their arsenal will make them much more likely to maintain an active lifestyle through adulthood.
Once kids hit 10, 11, 12, that's when it becomes wise to specialize, says Camiré. "With most sports, that's the age we start seeing stricter selection processes, knowledgeable and dedicated coaches, more competitive games, and more frequent and demanding practices," he explains. And by that time, along with having matured physically and emotionally, your child is more likely to have developed a passion for a given sport.
But kids also need time to just be kids. "Their bodies need time to recover, and they need months off to ride bikes and play with friends instead of always being in a heavily structured, adult-supervised sports environment," says Camiré. "Let them develop their own games and rules. We call that ‘deliberate play,' and we need to be promoting it more."
That, he says, is the best way to make sure your kid doesn't morph into an overweight, lethargic adult who'd rather watch video footage of his high-school-athlete glory days than bust out his sneakers and find a pickup game on the weekend.