For many parents, there are pressing questions related to youth sports that they can't find the right answers to. To help answer these, we've created a 'Big Questions in Youth Sports' series. We'll provide insights from youth and high school coaches in different sports from across the country who have achieved success and earned a reputation for positively developing student-athletes in different sports.
Big Question: At What Age Should Young Athletes Start Specializing In One Sport?
Here are some of their answers on specialization:
"I don't think they should specialize really, at any point. I think they're a much better athlete if they play at least two sports. You look in lacrosse at the colleges and who they recruit, and you're just amazed that the athletes were also great soccer players, basketball players, or track stars. I think when they just play one sport, they can feel like they're going through the motion some of the time. A lot of our girls like lacrosse number one, but they also play field hockey or basketball because they actually love that season because they don't feel there's pressure on them. The parents don't really put pressure on them because it's their second sport."
"I have four children, and my son played lacrosse at Washington and Lee University, and my daughter went to (University of) Pennsylvania and played field hockey and lacrosse all four years. That doesn't happen very often, but I really encouraged all my kids to play multiple sports in high school."
Kathy Jenkins started the girls' lacrosse program in 1976 at St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia. As Head Coach, Jenkins has led the program to a national record 832 wins, along with 10 state titles, 30 league titles, and 31 conference tournament championships. She's also founded multiple lacrosse programs and co-owns Triple Threat Lacrosse Camp.
"My son played baseball, basketball and football at a high level. His sophomore year, he was the starting quarterback in football. But we made the decision for him to focus on basketball his junior in high school. Basketball was his love, and we thought that was where he'd have an opportunity to go the next level, which he did by playing at the University of Oklahoma and University of Minnesota."
"When kids make that decision in second or third grade, that's too young. If you think about it, it's not their decision for the 8-, 9-, or 11-year-old. It's the parent's decision. The kid hasn't had enough experience in other sports."
Larry McKenzie has led two North Minneapolis public high schools to a combined six state titles, including a record four straight. A member of Minnesota's Positive Coaches Alliance, Coach McKenzie is the first Black coach inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2019, he was recognized by the NCAA with the prestigious “Living Legend Award” and a "Guardian of the Game" by the National Basketball Coaches Association.
"I truly believe in a multi-sport athlete and feel as though an athlete does not need to specialize in one sport. Most college coaches recruit an athlete, not a specialized player! If an athlete takes more of an interest in one sport, he/ she can practice more in the off-season if time allows. If an athlete chooses to specialize in a sport, I would hope he/ she waits until high school to do so."
Terri Simonetti Frost was recently named one of the National High School Coaches of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which serves 19,500 high schools and more than 12 million student-athletes. She has led Thomas Worthington High in Ohio to six state championships in Field Hockey, and she's racked up 365 career victories.
"I don’t believe in specializing for young athletes. I would rather they be competing in different sports than trying to develop skills in one sport. Example: How will my quarterback handle bases loaded, with two outs, and a full count with the other team's cleanup hitter at the plate?"
John "Speedy" Faith played baseball at Oklahoma Christian University and was inducted into the New Mexico High School Coaches Hall of Honor in July 2022. The longtime Head Football Coach at Lovington High School, Faith coached Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher, among other talented student-athletes, and he led the school to four state championships.
"There's so many times I've seen really good athletes say too young, 'Basketball is my thing,' or, 'Baseball's my thing,' and they are either mature for their age, which means they're already six feet tall at 12 years old, then later down the road, they've stopped growing and, in that time, a lot of times other kids catch up with them. So it is hard for them to handle that failure, and then they've set them up for all or nothing in that particular sport, and they sometimes end up quitting. So for me, I would like to have them play as many sports as possible. I'm at a mid-sized school in Iowa, and pushing specialization is very tough because you just don't have the numbers of athletes. But I think you can hold that specialization off until you're a sophomore in high school. It's usually, by that time, I'm going to say the pecking order is starting to get established."
Trent Eckstaine is the Boys Varsity Baseball Coach at LeMars High School in Iowa. He's also a part-time scout for the Chicago White Sox.
"Maybe 13 or 14 or 15. But when you talk with people who are the best in their game, you have to play your sport. It's trying to find that balance. If someone truly loves a sport and that's their passion, and you have them do other things, then let them go."
Suzy Willemssen was the first female player to join the boys baseball program in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa. A four-sport athlete in high school, she was an All-State player in softball, volleyball and basketball. She played softball at the University of Iowa, where she earned a Bachelors in Physical Education. The founder of the Glory travel softball organization in the D.C. Metro, she also has led Bishop O'Connell High in Arlington, Virginia, to three state softball titles and has countless other accomplishments.
"It depends on the sport. But if their main sport is soccer, they need to specialize in eighth or ninth grade due to it being a very high-skilled sport. They need to focus on it year-round if they want to compete at the next level. However, if an athlete plays a sport like American football, which relies more on athleticism, then multi-sports through high school tend to have a positive effect."
Jacob Brown started playing competitive soccer in his hometown of Cullman, Alabama, when he was 11 years old. He helped Cullman High to two Final Four appearances in the state tournament, and played at Wallace State. He's led the Cullman High Girls Varsity team to four section titles and the West Point High Boys Varsity team to its most successful season ever. He is the Director of Coaching for Cullman United Soccer Club, leading three club teams to state titles.
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