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Specializing in Single Sport, Early Travel Team Play Hurt Athletic Development

The Case Against Early Specialization

One of the reasons often cited in favor of early specialization in a single sport and playing on select or travel teams is that it makes a better player, promoting the development of the skills a player will need to be a successful athlete as a high school player and beyond.

The problem is that the emphasis of select teams on winning games and tournaments may actually deter your child's athletic development for the following reasons:

  • True learning doesn't occur during games, where players are often afraid to take risks because a mistake may cost the team the game, but in training, where players have a chance to be spontaneous, creative, try new moves, and take risks. The reason soccer players in Europe and South America are often more skilled than those produced by our soccer system is that their programs emphasize training, skill development, and creativity, and focus less on playing game after game after game, tournament after tournament. A good analogy would be if your child's math teacher were to limit actual teaching to one day out of the week and give tests the other four days.
  • No matter what their mission statements may say, many select programs are all about winning. Player development can and often does become secondary to that goal, with the coach playing the "best" players in order to win and relegating the rest to the bench, where they cannot hone their skills.
  • Sometimes players who train too much, receive too much coaching, and specialize too early develop bad habits that become harder to fix when they are older.
  • Some studies suggest that sports specialization may actually lead to reduced motor skill development, as young athletes focus on the motor skills needed for their sport but ignore the motor skills developed through participation in multiple sports.[1]

Before grade six, your child is far better off playing in a low-pressure environment that emphasizes skill development than in an environment that stresses winning and intense competition, which characterize today's select programs.

1. Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems?  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061.   

Revised October 29, 2013 

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