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Commentary Jan 27, 2015

LeBolt: What’s so wrong with early specialization?

WendyLeBolt-HeaderThere were two trains of thought duking it out at this year’s NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia. The Contenders: “Early Specialization is Bad For Our Kids, So Let Them be Multi-sport Athletes” vs. “The U.S. Development System Stinks, So Get Them into the Professional Academy System Early, and That Includes Schooling, too.” (And throw in a #European or a #BayernMunich while you’re at it.)

Honestly, coaches whose judgment I respect came at me from both sides on this and had me scratching my head.

+READ: O’Sullivan: Why single-sport specialization needs to end now

Early specialization, the way we have started doing it in the U.S., certainly increases the potential for overuse injury, burn out and even developmental injury. Bony structures in young joints subjected to heavy stresses can actually be misshapen, which may lead to early onset arthritis and other joint abnormalities.

BUT, in sports where early entry is important for full technical development, smart training can balance the demands of training, even advanced training, by providing well-designed programming that balances stresses, identifies and addresses weaknesses, and plans rest and recovery for proper regeneration. (I will actually be addressing this topic at the VYSA Convention in Arlington, Virginia this weekend.)

So, it seems that most (a large majority of) kids would do well to diversify their sports. But a select few who are gifted for greatness, might do fine (or better than fine) if they are properly managed, smart about their decision-making and confident in the training designed by a professional who individualizes the program for that athlete.

We could learn from other sports, like swimming or gymnastics or ice skating, which require a huge commitment of time and resources to produce a champion — but they protect their investment by making sure the young athlete is progressed according to what’s healthy and supports performance.

The problem for most of us is we don’t have the “special care and handling kid,” we just have our kid. And we love ‘em. They may not be on the Olympic track, but they have potential, and there’s a lot of angst about how to help them realize that. Whatever that may be. Then we’re confronted by the two loud voices of contention at the Convention, and aren’t sure which way to turn.

What just a few years and a lot of life in this business have taught me is: There are rarely, (can we say never?) just two options. There’s always middle ground. And we’d do well to remember the individual kid who sits smack dab in the middle of it.

+READ: SoccerWire Q&A: Bayern Munich icon Paul Breitner on Bundesliga, USMNT, youth soccer

That came home to roost in a conversation I had this weekend with a dad whose daughter is sitting out for the third time after ACL reconstruction — two on one knee, one on the other.

“She still wants to play in college,” Dad tells me, “especially after watching all her teammates commit. But the timing is bad, because it’s her senior year in high school, and she missed most the showcase tournaments during her junior year.”

With resignation he adds, “Even if it’s DIII.”

This young lady has played soccer since she was little. She focused on soccer early, and became a smart, diligent, capable defender. So impressive, in fact, that she was voted MVP by her teammates even though she missed most of the season because of injury. Her Dad implores me that her friends are there, her heart us there, and her hopes are there. She had never considered doing anything else; she’s a soccer player. Now, this Dad is despairing of her chances to realize her dream to play in college.

In that moment, I realized the greatest risk of early specialization is the one that no one is talking about: identity crisis. These kids ARE soccer players. As long as they succeed and move up through the ranks, no problem. I’m #7, play for _____, position is ______. Oh yeah, and my name is >>>>>>>>>. But tip that house of cards and they all come tumbling down.

This may be our developmental system’s biggest problem. When losing a game or losing your starting spot means losing your identity, you panic. Your fight or flight system kicks in and stress completely subverts all your best intentions and reasonable considerations. Quick, accurate decision-making and performance is impossible. Fear makes us forget what we know. Those thoughts don’t even make it to the frontal lobe once the emotional brain gets hold of them.

+READ: LeBolt: Five simple tests to identify increased risk of ACL tear

Fear of losing does this, and anxiety hangs around for the next time we try. If a kid’s identity is wrapped up in their soccer, losing is unconscionable. But injury! Now that’s a crisis! I am a soccer player; if I can’t play soccer, who am I? Must repair. Must rehab. Must return. Must make the team. What choice do I have? I have never entertained any other ideas. The singular focus has left me no other options.

Sunny-cropped-USSF-youthFriends, we’ve got to insist our kids develop a well-rounded perspective of themselves. Yes, their name is >>>>>>>>>  and they play soccer. What else? Maybe they play piano or tuba or sing in the choir and serve their community, participate in scouts or volunteer to serve meals at the homeless shelter. But first they contribute to chores around the house, babysit their siblings, take their dog for a walk, and make their Mom a mother’s day card.

This isn’t excused just because they are “select” players. We would be short-changing them, because these things are what prepares them to be strong contributors to society. That’s the full-featured identity we want them to have, and each can have their very own, no two alike! They will win their own competition and break their own records with every individual success.

We’ve got a crisis on our hands and we’re not managing it well because we’re looking at two extremes and think we must choose sides. What we need is a demilitarized zone. Because what I see trending out there is a lot of emotion. Emotion disrupts logical thought and it takes things completely out of focus. We need to focus on the facts and discuss what’s reasonable, even if it’s hard. Logical to  me means that after the ACLs the 18-year-old should hang up her college competition cleats and think about playing for fun.

+READ: LeBolt: How setting the wrong goals leads to failure

What I want to tell this Dad and every other parent out there is what I discovered about my kid when she said, “Mom and Dad, I don’t want to play college soccer.”

That was a championship moment. Yes, it was disappointing after all we had invested, and financially hard to swallow. But after the emotional clouds cleared and I could take a more focused look.

When your kid’s team wins the tournament, they bring home the trophy, but that moment isn’t what makes them a champion. Coach John Wooden said it so well: “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored, but you’ll never lose.”

What makes them a champion is everything they did to prepare for the championship which, on this day, was good enough for the win. No one can take that away from you, and you can spend that currency anywhere in the world. Even Germany.

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