Zach Loyd reminds us that premature specialization in youth soccer is unwise

Zach Loyd (right) is the latest example of how claims of need for specialization at young age are wrongheaded.

Also file under: Making youth soccer better

I recently read a Q&A on Zach Loyd, the FC Dallas defender who just made a successful U.S. national team debut. United States coach Bob Bradley even singled out Loyd, who wasn’t always perfect in a technical sense, but his competitiveness and battling mentality shined.

I can’t think of a better illustration of the argument against specialization in youth sports at a young age – the misguided calls for which drive me batty.

Here’s what Loyd said in the conversation at U.S. “I grew up playing football until I was a sophomore in high school. I played safety and kicker, and wide receiver when they needed me. Being from a small town, we played all the sports. Through high school I was playing basketball and soccer. I got offered a scholarship to the University of North Carolina for soccer, so I stuck with it. I love playing.”

Every parent with a child in sports should read that. Don’t listen to any coach who says kids need to specialize in one sport (at least not until late teenage years, perhaps.) Estimates on the high end say 2 percent of youth soccer players will receive a college scholarship. Percentage that will ever earn a dime playing soccer? About the same as the percent chance I have of one day becoming a rock star – or something close to it.

So, why would parents want their kid to specialize?

I’d say that well-intentioned parents just want the best for their children, and feel pressured to get their kids into position for achievement. So they are susceptible to bad advice, advice that serves the system rather than the child. Whereas it was OK to let kids simply play sports before, parent may now feel like they aren’t doing right by their child if they aren’t putting them in the best position to gain a college scholarship.

I’m sure there are some other, less noble, elements occasionally in play – overzealous parents channeling their ambition through their children and such – but we’ll just table that Tiger Mom element of the discussion for now.  

Part and parcel with this desire to do the best thing for their children is the self-serving coach or club that encourage kids to specialize. (This happens in elite, youth levels of other sports, too. It’s not just a youth soccer thing.) Of course Big Club X wants little Jason and Julie to specialize … otherwise the parents’ money gets disbursed among other clubs and other sports. And that is not best for the club.

Loyd’s case perfectly illustrates what I’ve always said. A major element in developing young athletes (and young people in general) is cultivating overall athleticism and the ability to compete. Athletes in any sport develop competitive mentalities and the properties that allow them to work through issues. Plus, the strength, agility, power, coordination, balance, etc., developed for one sport can certainly assist in others.

Meanwhile, the endemic burnout we see isn’t as much of a danger if kids are allowed to go play other sports.

I recently wrote a piece for the Biltmore Resort publication (soccer writing is cool and all, but writing for such highfalutin publications pays quite well), where the resort’s Total Performance Golf learning center is taking much of the “golf” from their youth golf program. Instead, they strive to develop power and well-rounded athletic ability through other sports. Of course they teach golf skills, too, but they recognize the need for overall athletic ability. They don’t recommend specialization until age 15 or 16.

For more evidence, here’s a good article I found from Jim Cosgrove, executive director of U.S. Youth Soccer. I think he sums it up pretty well right here: “I cannot think of any pros to early specialization. The cons include poor athletic development, over-use injuries, emotional exhaustion and psychosocial burn-out. The too much-too soon syndrome also causes a jaded attitude toward the sport to develop by the mid to late teens."

Finally, here's a really good, comprehensive article on the subject.

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