USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
Youth sports are becoming increasingly competitive and that’s creating an environment where parents are faced with making some tough decisions for their young kids. Many now wonder at what age they should start investing into their child’s sports future, giving consideration to the fact that expenses for leagues, lessons and equipment can add up to thousands of dollars per year. And while the numbers show that getting your child started in sports at a young age can increase their chances of competing in college, there are also many other factors that complicate the issue. While there are no hard answers when it comes to success in sports at a certain age, the following tips can help you make the decision for your young athlete.
Early specialization is common in some sports, but not all
According to the 2015 GOALS study conducted by the NCAA, more than 90% of college athletes (including non-scholarship Division III) playing ice hockey, soccer, softball, baseball, or women’s gymnastics had started playing their sport before the age of 9. As far as specialization goes, by age 12, 87% of female gymnasts were specializing in their sport, along with 50%–70% of soccer, tennis, basketball and ice hockey players, as well as swimmers. For male athletes, 50%–70% had started specializing in soccer, tennis, or ice hockey by age 12.
Now, you might be thinking, “I need to get my kid playing sports immediately!” Well, don’t panic. The study also shows that less than 38% of male Division I athletes started specializing in swimming, golf, football, baseball, wrestling, lacrosse, or track by age 12. And for female DI athletes, less than 28% had started specializing in golf, volleyball, lacrosse, track, field hockey, or rowing by age 12.
So, essentially, some sports do have athletes specializing at a very young age, but there are also plenty of other sports out there that don’t have such an early timeline. Not every sport requires the early dedication of women’s gymnastics! As a parent, you may feel the pressure to have your athlete commit to a single sport right away, but coaches are increasingly touting the mental and physical benefits of playing multiple sports.
Don’t overdo it
According to the National Alliance of Youth Sports, about 70% of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the time they turn 13. The most common response is because “it’s just not fun anymore.” Pressure from coaches, teammates, and parents to succeed on the playing field is sapping the fun out of sports for most kids, but some encouragement and moderation can go a long way in keeping your kid interested. Studies have even shown that early sports specialization can increase the risk of injury down the road. In a recent Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine study, 102 current professional baseball players were surveyed. Those who specialized early (48%) reported more serious injuries during their professional career, and 63.4% of players surveyed did not believe that early sport specialization was required to play professionally.
Since the start of the Little League World Series in 1947, there have been a total of 45 LLWS players that have made it to the MLB (as of 2015). That’s about one player for every three teams that reach the Little League World Series. Point being: Early success doesn’t necessarily lead to pro ball in the future. In the case of youth sports, it’s often players that have hit puberty early that dominate sports at a younger age.
Oftentimes, we spend too much time wrapped up in talent selection, celebrating kids that are good at sports right now, and cutting those that aren’t. This is a short-sighted approach that runs counter to long-term talent identification. Keeping more kids engaged in sports while teaching them proper fundamentals leads to a larger pool of skilled athletes. Maybe your kid isn’t the best basketball player right now, but after they finish their growth spurt, they could become a talented basketball player—or use those skills in another sport. Sticking with it could offer long-term rewards.
Talk it over
For some young athletes, it’s easy to tell when they have a true passion for their sport and you get a feeling it will almost always be a part of their lives in some way. With others, it’s just hard to tell. The best way to find out is to talk about it and keep the conversation going from season to season and just don’t assume there’s always a “next year.” Like adults, their passions may wane or they find new activities to pursue. Those talks can go a long way in helping decide on when (or not) to invest more in their sports future.