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Specialization vs Prioritization: The Important Difference

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

In every youth athlete’s career the underlying question of when, or if, to specialize in a particular sport is unavoidable. On one hand, you want to train and get a step ahead of your peers... but on the other you risk burnout. This conundrum leads one to wonder how much training, is too much training?

Thinking about youth sports and trying to understand what is best for your son/daughter can be an incredibly difficult task. Although the potential for burnout is always a concern, to be an elite level player, you simply have to put the time & effort in to separate yourself from your peers. There are no shortcuts to being exceptional!

Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Athletic development is a long, ever changing process that should be viewed as a “marathon” not a “sprint”. The LTAD model has been created to break the different stages of youth athletic development into distinct manageable sections. The first three stages all happen prior to the age’s of 11-13 (ranging for every individual) generally stopping as they go into a maturity and teenage phase of their lives.

These three stages; the active start stage 0-6, fundamental stage 6-9, and the learn to train stage 9-12. During this time it is VITAL to encourage all young athletes to build physical literacy to be effective athletes. ( Allowing your son/daughter to gain the ability to sprint, jump, turn, catch, kick etc.. while being under complete control of their body during these ages can be vital to future success during their athletic careers.

Stage 4 of the athletic development process (12-16) individual athletes begin to “build the engine” for success within their sport. ( While it is NOT necessary to dedicate yourself to one particular sport, it is necessary to PRIORITIZE one sport over another. Prioritizing one commitment over another means that when a conflict arises between the two, one commitment will always be seen as the “first option”.

Advantages of being a multi sport athlete.. Being a multiple sport athlete can have many different benefits on an athlete’s development. Competing in multiple sporting events allows a player to have a diverse mix of experiences handling the different decisions and emotions involved in sporting events.

Along with many others, below are several benefits of playing multiple sports:

1.) Increase overall athleticism.

2.) Increase cognitive decision making ability.

3.) Decrease the risk of burnout.

4.) Decrease the risk of injury.

Players at the highest level are able to handle any situation that is thrown at them. Being able to functionally move your body in space in relation to others is a necessary skill for elite athletes. While one may see two sports such as hockey and soccer as completely different... In both sports defensively, the idea is to eliminate time and space, while closing down passing lanes. To do this you must; analyze the opponents movement, communicate with your teammates, and than position your body and feet appropriately to make an effective play. Participation in both allows for the athlete to gain a diverse array of experiences to continually improve the quality of the decisions they make within those fast moving moments.

Conclusion Playing sports and being a part of a team should be fun! It is important to remember kids play sports to enjoy themselves. Your son/daughter may not care if they are the best basketball or baseball player in the school, but they may love their time participating in something other than their “preferred” sport! Encouraging your son/daughter to have a sport they participate in simply to enjoy themselves can be the recipe to cure common sport burn-out in the later years of athletics.

While specializing in one sport at a young age can be counterproductive, not prioritizing your preferred sport can also be counterproductive. Understand.. that every athlete needs a diverse mix of skills and athletic capabilities to be successful within any sport.

In one sentence being able to kick, run, jump, & catch with both hands/feet is a crucial element to any individuals athletic development. Mastering these area’s of athleticism will lead to greater success in all areas sport.

Works Cited

Athletes Canada Group. "Long Term Athlete Development." Athletes Canada Long Term Athlete Development. N.p., n.d. Web. Larry Meadors PhD, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D, RSCC*E, USAW-2. "Practical Application for LongTerm Athletic Development." NSCA. N.p., n.d. Web

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