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Specializing at a Young Age Will Stunt Your Growth, Not Improve It

Specializing at a Young Age Will Stunt Your Growth, Not Improve It

According to USA Hockey, colleges and universities all across the nation are recruiting talented and skilled ice hockey players before they are even starting high school.  Verbal commitments are being made between prospects and perennial powerhouses like University of Wisconsin.  Talented players who do not want to take the college route are opting for the major junior system in Canada and then going pro at the young age of 18 or 19.  There is an increasing number of very young players in the National Hockey League, with a handful of them being made captain of their professional squads like Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby.  The emergence of young athletes assuming key roles in the elite circles of Division 1 and professional sports makes it appear to younger players that specializing is the way to go.  Ice Hockey is not the only sport identifying talent at unusually young ages.  Major football universities are finding players just beginning high school.  A lot can be said about the physical and mental development of an athlete in high school and college.  Schools like Yale University will not consider a young recruit for their varsity sports because they realize how much can change mentally for a teenager between the ages of 14 and 18.  For them, academic integrity is as important as athletic performance.  Therefore, making a guarantee four years early is not appealing to them.  They want to see where that candidate will be down the road before they make any commitments.  What happened to waiting around and shopping for the best?  We don’t elect Presidents 4 years before they are to take the oath, why should we choose what jersey an athlete will wear before they get there?  If you keep the competition to play close to the actual time they will be doing so, the road to get there will be more about the process and development.

Ten years ago, it was thought that athletes needed more time to develop and gain the competitive edge.  In ice hockey, post graduate programs (PG years) at prep schools and junior teams were common staples to get noticed by competitive college hockey programs.  It was thought that in order to have the edge, you needed the time to develop physically and mentally as well as gain the experience of playing with other like-minded athletes.  When you knew you had a long road ahead of you to make the college and professional ranks, specializing in your sport at 12 was not the smartest thing.  Parents, coaches, and experts worried that applying too much pressure at a young age to perform and excel would cause players to burn out prematurely.

Performance development coaches like myself believe that while players should focus primarily on two sports, that their programs should incorporate skills and abilities required to perform well in as many as 10 other sports or activities.  Even if you do not play baseball, ice hockey players who have the ability to go to a batting cage and hit a high percentage of the pitches.  Hockey players who can play baseball well will have better reaction times on the ice and will be better able to react to pucks in flight from a high shot or at fielding a bad pass.  Likewise, playing soccer is great developmentally for a budding ice hockey player because a lot of very skilled players are very good at carrying and handling the puck with their feet.  Whether your main sport is baseball or ice hockey, you can learn a lot from playing other sports like tennis, soccer, football, etc.

The spectrum is vast regarding what parents think their children should do.  Some want their children to be like Sidney Crosby and will force them to specialize at 8 years old and others want their kids to just have fun and will them do anything they want for however long they want.  Both approaches are bad.  Specializing or being aloof is bad.  The key is to keep the intensity, attention, encouragement, and vigor high with the expectation and pressure low.  Young athletes should be taught discipline, passion, a love for training and the sport, and heart.  The road to intercollegiate and professional sports is long.  The people who make it and stay there are the ones who love the unglamorous aspects, the long road trips, the sweat, the low pay (the pay for most professional athletes is not like ARod), the unforgiving schedule, and the inherent uncertainty that comes from a profession that is so fluid – where one day the best team wants you and the day the other team that will look at you is the farm club of the worst team.

Success comes from a love in what you do, whatever it is.  The day it becomes work is the day you know it might be time to consider a new path.  Athletes who play for the glory will be in store for a rude awakening.  The athletes who can weather adversity and overcome it through hard work and staying focused are the ones you know really love what they do.  The turnaround for the Tampa Bay Rays Baseball team shows outstanding determination, will, and passion for improving and bettering themselves.  They did not worry about playing as well as the perennial powerhouse teams like the Boston Red Sox.  They played the game the way they knew best and defined their run to the World Series their way and on their terms.  The way they went from the worst team in professional major league baseball to the World Series runner-up is an example of how individual athletes should approach their development.  You cannot go out there and just be in it for the win.  Unfortunately, the raw desire is not enough to get you there.  You need to be willing and able to put in the unappreciated and under valued hard work.  By doing so, you put yourself in a better position to start doing well.

As a sports development coach, I am useless to the person who just wants to play in a recreational league and get the fanfare when they score.  When someone is ready to work hard, put in long hours, and sweat – I am the perfect person for them.  I will help them get to where they want.  What I do has no glamour, other than the satisfaction in myself, knowing that I had a role in helping an athlete demonstrate their capabilities to an audience.  I do what I do because I have a love and passion for sports.  

The key to professional bliss is to specialize in a commitment to working hard.  Whatever else you do to get ahead will come after.  Do not worry about what nods you are getting at 14 to play college sports.  Keep your head down and stay focused on getting better.  A lot can happen in high school.  If you keep your options open at 14, you will have more to fall back on when you are 18.

If you specialize at 14 in football and it does not work out for you, there will be nothing else for you to fall back on.  If you play several sports and perform well in a couple of them, if one doesn’t lead to a paycheck or fame, maybe the other will.  The more options you have the less pressure you will feel on you to excel on at one, thereby making it more enjoyable.  Nobody wants to think that everything hinges on how you do in one thing.

Keep your options open and have fun, but remember you will not improve without putting in hard work.  So decide what your priorities are and then go from there.  If you don’t want to sweat or do the necessary things to improve your game, then don’t expect to play at the next level.  There is nothing wrong with playing pick-up games.  You have to be honest with yourself regarding your skill level and desire to put in the time required to make it.  Sidney Crosby, Eli Manning, Tom, Brady, Michael Jordan, and like company did not get to where they did just by coasting through life.  They assessed their abilities and accordingly set their mind on where they wanted to go.  Once they did that, they worked tirelessly to make sure they got there.  That due diligence is why they all became standouts in the professional arena.

The key thing to take away from this article is that you need more determination than skill.  And more importantly, you need more love than determination.  Therefore, you need more love than skill.  If you do not enjoy what you do, it will not matter how much skill you have because you will not want to do it anymore.  Being focused is different than specializing.  Play a lot of sports.  Stay active in many different things.  Do it because you love it.  You can decide later which one will let you do it in college or professionally.  You will benefit more from playing other sports and training for those sports than you will spending all that time training for one sport.  My program is so effective because despite your focus, I expose you to movements and drills common to other activities, thereby making you a more complete and well rounded athlete.

Stay tuned for more articles by DSWAthletes, owned and managed by Derrick Wong.  We write about all things sports.  We want to help you get to wherever you want to go and enjoy both the process and the outcome.  We will help you stay focused and in great shape.