Is Early Specialization Beneficial for Young Soccer Players?

Are there times when its OK for youth athletes to focus on just one sport?

Early specialization is one of the hottest topics in youth sports, and for good reason.

More often than not, kids who play soccer are rarely getting time off from the game, and have no real offseason to recover. There is Fall, Winter, Spring, and now, even Summer soccer. Not taking a season off can prove to be overwhelming for a kid's physical health.

Worse yet, youth soccer schedules are becoming more stringent, causing kids to not have time for a personal life that involves extracurricular activities beyond their sport. This makes the mental piece just as problematic as the physical.

With youth soccer dropout and injury rates on the rise, coaches and parents are questioning whether or not kids should focus on one sport at a young age (for the sake of this article, before age 12).

While these issues are paramount to address, before we demonize early specialization, we must look at all of its components. It is a multi-layered topic that needs some unwrapping before we discern whether it is "good" or "bad" for kids.

With that said, there are two sides to the early specialization story. First, let us take a look at when it may be beneficial, rather than detrimental.

When Early Specialization Is OK

Here is a specific case that needs to be considered: Some kids may have a tremendous passion for the game of soccer, and simply not want to participate in any other sport. If a kid has one love, I am not so sure we should force them to enroll in other sports. This is a rare occurrence, but one that cannot be overlooked.

But we do know that playing just one sport year-round at an early age can increase the risk of overuse injuries. The solution? Encourage the single-sport athlete to participate in movement outside of soccer, even if it isn't in another organized sport. It is possible to acquire a diverse menu of motor skills from outdoor play on playgrounds, basketball courts, hills, trees and more. I would argue that exploring the outdoors is an excellent complement to a rigid soccer schedule. As long as a kid is moving in a way that promotes balance, coordination and spatial awareness, that is a win.

Another solution is to ensure they are getting adequate training from a strength and conditioning professional. More often than not, early specializers are prone to overuse injuries, so making sure these kids are building strength to reduce that chance will go a long way. If a kid is working with a qualified strength coach, they should be exposed to a variety of movements in all planes of motion, such as Lunge variations, Pull-Ups, Push-Ups, hip hinge variations, and more.

Why Early Diversification Has Big Benefit

Early diversification is the antithesis of early specialization, where youth athletes participate in multiple sports. Enrolling in sports in addition to soccer is beneficial for several reasons:

  • Improved motor skill development
  • Increased exposure to a variety of movement patterns
  • Improved cognitive development
  • Increased exposure to new personalities and coaching styles
  • Increased exposure to new tactics
  • Decreased risk of overuse injury

As an example, lacrosse has a ton of carryover to offer a soccer athlete, such as anaerobic endurance, spontaneous tactical decision making, 1v1 problem solving (faking, cutting, maneuvering), and speed and change of direction development.

Lacrosse also offers new movements that a soccer athlete may not get from soccer, such as more upper-body strength, rotational power and dodging ability.

Though this looks beautiful for the soccer athlete, there can be one caveat: Playing soccer and lacrosse in the same season. Certainly, the benefits of early diversification cannot be maximized if a kid is overloaded with the physical and mental wear and tear of playing two sports simultaneously. This can lead to overuse injury due to chronic load over time, and the hectic schedule can make the athlete more liable to burnout.

So, what's the solution?

The optimal solution is to do sports that don't have overlapping seasons. Not only does this alleviate the chronic load issue, but a soccer player will come back with an increased zest for the sport and ready to hit the ground running again when they return to the pitch. And I promise, some time off from soccer (2-3 months) will not make a kid's skills suddenly wither away.

If a kid does play two sports in the same season, coaches and parents need to ensure they're getting adequate recovery days during this time (1-2 a week) to work on mobility and flexibility. Additionally, exposure to strength training will also be beneficial in this scenario, so the kids are more resilient to demanding game and practice schedules.

So what do you think? Is early specialization beneficial for young soccer players?

Before jumping to conclusions, we must consider a large number of factors.

Does the kid only want to play soccer? If they only play one sport, can they diversify their movement in other ways?

Or, if they're up for playing two or more sports, can they do so in a way that doesn't see the sports overlap in season?

We must keep the kid's interests and needs in mind, and manage accordingly. The good news is that no matter what the young athlete chooses, there are healthy ways to make things work and boost their development in the process.

Photo Credit: djedzura/iStock

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS