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Specializing at a Young Age Will Stunt Your Growth, Not Improve It
According to USA Hockey, colleges and universities across the country are recruiting talented and skilled ice hockey players before they even start high school. Verbal commitments are being made between prospects and perennial powerhouses like the University of Wisconsin. Talented players who don’t want to take the college route are opting for the mainstream youth system in Canada and then turning professional at the young age of 18 or 19. There is a growing number of very young players in the National Hockey League, with some being named captain of their professional squads like Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. The rise of young athletes taking key roles in the elite circles of Division 1 and professional sports makes younger players think that specialization is the way to go. Ice hockey isn’t the only sport that identifies talent at unusually young ages. Major soccer colleges are finding players just starting high school. Much 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 a teenager can mentally change between the ages of 14 and 18. Academic integrity is just as important to them as athletic performance. Therefore, making a guarantee four years in advance is not attractive to them. They want to see where that candidate will be in the future before committing. What happened to waiting and buying the best? We don’t elect presidents 4 years before they are sworn in, so why should we choose which jersey an athlete will wear before they get there? If you keep the competition to play close to the actual time they will, the road to getting there will be more about process and development.
Ten years ago, it was thought that athletes needed more time to develop and gain a competitive advantage. In ice hockey, postgraduate programs (PG years) in high schools and youth teams were common staples for the attention of competitive college hockey programs. It was thought that to have the advantage, you needed time to develop physically and mentally, as well as gain experience from playing with other like-minded athletes. When you knew you had a long road ahead of you to reach the collegiate and professional ranks, majoring in your sport at age 12 wasn’t the smart thing to do. Parents, coaches, and experts were concerned that applying too much pressure at a young age to perform and excel would cause players to burn out prematurely.
Performance development coaches like me believe that while players should focus primarily on two sports, their programs should incorporate the skills and abilities necessary to perform well in 10 other sports or activities. Even if you don’t play baseball, ice hockey players have the ability to go to a batting cage and hit a high percentage of pitches. Hockey players who can play baseball well will have better reaction times on the ice and will be able to react better to flying pucks from a high throw or fielding a bad pass. Similarly, playing soccer is great for the development of a budding ice hockey player because many highly 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 by playing other sports like tennis, soccer, etc.
The spectrum is wide with respect to what parents think their children should do. Some want their kids to be like Sidney Crosby and force them to major at age 8 and others want their kids to just have fun and do what they want for as long as they want. Both approaches are bad. Specializing or being aloof is bad. The key is to keep the intensity, focus, drive, and stamina high with low expectations and pressure. Young athletes must be taught discipline, passion, a love of training and 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 looks, the long road trips, the sweat, the low pay (most professional athletes’ pay isn’t like ARod), the relentless schedule, and the inherent uncertainty that comes from a profession that is so fluid, where one day the best team wants you and the other team that will look at you is the worst team’s farm club.
Success comes from loving 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 playing for glory are in for a rude awakening. The athletes who can weather adversity and overcome it through hard work and staying focused are the ones who truly love what they do. The change for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team shows outstanding determination, will and passion to improve and surpass themselves. They didn’t worry about playing as well as perennial powerhouses like the Boston Red Sox. They played the game the way they knew best and defined their World Series run in their own way and on their terms. The way they went from the worst team in Major League Baseball to the runner-up in the World Series is an example of how individual athletes must approach their development. You can’t go out there and just participate for the win. Unfortunately, pure desire isn’t enough to get you there. You must be willing and able to do unappreciated and underappreciated hard work. By doing so, you put yourself in a better position to start doing it right.
As a sports development coach, I’m useless to the person who just wants to play in a recreational league and get 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 where they want. There is no glamor to what I do, other than the satisfaction in myself, knowing that I had a role in helping an athlete demonstrate his capabilities to an audience. I do what I do because I have a love and passion for sports.
The key to professional happiness is to specialize in the commitment to work hard. Anything else you do to get ahead will come later. Don’t worry about the nominations you’ll get at 14 for varsity sports. Keep your head down and focus on getting better. A lot can happen in high school. If you keep your options open at 14, you’ll have more to fall back on when you’re 18.
If you specialize at 14 in soccer and it doesn’t work out for you, there will be nothing else you can turn to. If you play several sports and do well in a couple of them, if one doesn’t bring you a salary or fame, maybe the other does. The more options you have, the less pressure you’ll feel on yourself to excel at one, making it more likable. No one wants to think that everything depends on how you do at one thing.
Keep your options open and have fun, but remember that you won’t get better without hard work. So decide what your priorities are, and then go from there. If you don’t want to break a sweat or do the things necessary to improve your game, then don’t expect to play to the next level. There is nothing wrong with playing pickup games. You have to be honest with yourself about your skill level and willingness to put in the time to do it. Sidney Crosby, Eli Manning, Tom, Brady, Michael Jordan and the like didn’t get where they got by simply sliding through life. They evaluated their abilities and accordingly decided where they wanted to go. Once they did that, they worked tirelessly to make sure they got there. That due diligence is the reason they all excelled in the professional arena.
The key to take away from this article is that you need more determination than skill. And what is more important, you need more love than determination. Therefore, you need more love than skill. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it won’t matter how skilled you are because you won’t want to do it anymore. Being focused is different from specializing. He practices many sports. Get active in lots of different things. Do it because you love it. You can decide later which will allow you to do it in college or professionally. You will benefit more by playing other sports and training for those sports than by spending all that time training for one sport. My program is so effective because, despite its focus, I expose you to movements and exercises common to other activities, making you a more well-rounded and balanced athlete.
Stay tuned for more articles from DSWAthletes, owned and managed by Derrick Wong. We write about everything related to sports. We want to help you get where you want to go and enjoy both the process and the result. We’ll help you stay focused and in good shape.
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