Child and Teen Athletes: Saying NO to early specialization in sports

Early specialization in sports? Not for this family.

by Laurie Winslow Sargent

Back when my kids were ages 11, 17, and 22, I wrote an article called Encouraging Young Athletes — on discouraging early specialization — for Cedar Valley Athlete magazine. Now that my 11-year-old is a teen athlete, I’m glad for choices I made for her back then.

Image: chrisroll /

Until I had my third child, I was a semi-sports parent.

Semi, because although my two eldest were involved in multiple sports, those sports were school or city sponsored, seasonal, inexpensive, and close to home.  We still had plenty of time for family fun, including sailing, hiking, and vacations. Our children were able to explore non-sports interests too.

Between preschool and high school Kid One (boy) was on soccer, basketball, football, and wrestling teams. In college he enjoyed rugby, scuba diving, skiing, and weight-lifting. Kid Two (girl) played soccer and basketball, swam, and ran cross-country. Both, now young adults, are committed to physical fitness and enjoy running, hiking, and other recreational sports.

Kid Three (girl), however,  pushed me into a whole new athletic realm, with far more decisions to make — with time and finances.

Raising an Athletic Child (Whew!)

Her athletic inclinations were noticeable — no kidding — at about ten months old. As a toddler all her first words were verbs (run, jump, swing). As a young preschooler, she was always planning physically precise movements. She became very upset when I moved the ottoman, because she had invented a headstand-flip routine with it. At city parks other parents looked on with horror as my 3-4 year old scrambled up full-sized play equipment while I looked on nonchalantly, as she’d done it since about 16 months old (well, yeah, that gave me a heart attack too). At age five or six she challenged my husband’s weight lifting gym members to a pull-up contest (hilarious).

Then came basketball, gymnastics, swimming, soccer . . . (I’ve lost track already).

Parental Pressures for Specialization

By the time she was 11, parents and coaches were chastising me: “You should get her on a team.” (Meaning: an expensive club team with year-round commitments.) You should, you should, you should. No matter what sport she played, it was always implied that if I didn’t get on the ball and be a real sports parent, I’d be wasting my kid’s talent and ability to play competitively in her teen and college years.

YIKES! Was that possible? My gut said no. At first I even resisted locking her into any classes or teams at all. We had so many fabulous parks to explore. When she did finally join teams, I wanted to her challenged but still to have fun simply playing without pressure, specialization, or year-round sports. I also wanted to use family funds for family fun as much as possible. Upward basketball at our church was fun, and mountain hiking was still a family favorite.

At that time I felt very affirmed by the book Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports. The author, Regan McMahon (journalist and mother of two athletic kids) addressed concerns experienced by parents of young athletes: loss of family time, pressure to join costly clubs (with “potential”, but rare, scholarships as lures);  loss of children’s opportunities and time to explore other interests; kid stress; and competitive use injuries.  McMahon offered practical advice as well.

Now – fast-forward — Kid Three is an 11th grade teen athlete. Through middle and high school she has enjoyed basketball, competitive cheer, track and now cross-country, all courtesy of her public schools. The closest I’ve come to being a real sports parent has been needing to manage far more sports/games/meets in a year than Kid One or Kid Two ever wanted. It’s also been more important to Kid Three for us to be present at as many sports events as possible, and travel farther, but we are pleased to oblige and support her. It just means I fill my calendar first with sports obligations — then work around them.

My Teen Athlete’s Own Choices

This past fall of her junior year in high school, my daughter has finally chosen, to specialize:  in running, at least for a while. That was a tough choice for her, having competed nationally with cheer as a flyer. However, now she’s experienced ever-increasing opportunities to run cross-country and track at very competitive invitational levels, which has been very exciting, including a national meet in Manhattan this past weekend.

This has given me confidence that I made right decisions for her in avoiding early specialization in sports. As she runs increasingly competitively, it does add some stress for her that could have so easily discouraged her at a young age. Also, income that could have been spent on club sports for her  instead helped Kids One and Two through college and should help Kid Three as well. Any scholarships on the horizon? If so, that will be a bonus and of course, very welcome! But I’m so glad I didn’t spend my child’s elementary school years pushing her to pursue that, and allowed plenty of time for her to enjoy childhood and the sheer love of sports.

There’s a new great book out called The Real Story of a High School Coach which I’m delighted to see affirms my choices. A teacher and coach of baseball and cross-country, the author, Michael Miragliuolo has led many high school teams to championships, and many of his athletes have gone been awarded college sports scholarships. He grew his cross-country team in an unusual way from 25 runners to over 200, so was featured in USA Today. We also happen to be thrilled that he is my daughter’s head coach. That’s how I found the book. Yet I  nodded in agreement while turning the pages, as his views on early specialization in sports are vehement and mirror my own. Then I noticed he’d included a photo of my daughter’s 2013 state winning cross-country team — an unexpected, fun surprise!

My youngest child-now-teen’s trademark has been the way she’s always grinned while playing sports. Coaches and teammates have consistently commented on that. That’s because her participation has been for the joy of it. Yes, she’s always been competitive and at times very serious. But there has always been joy underlying her sports choices. A basketball referee once joked that her smile was blinding him. When her grins turned to grimaces when playing that particular sport, she was done with it.

As long as she can run and still enjoy it, I’m right behind her. (Well, not right behind — she leaves me in the dust.) But it will remain her choice. We will both know when the smiles stop that it will be time for a change. For now, she’s running and grinning.

A final note: no sport will be fun all the time, of course. My daughter has run track for five years, and now cross-country, through rain, snow, and sleet (even when the mailman wouldn’t). She’s experienced aches and pains, and many emotional highs and lows with team successes and struggles.  It’s her dedication, competitiveness, and underlying joy for the sport that keeps her going, encouraging others along the way.

[Image: chrisroll /]