Over Specialization Versus Long Term Development

The modern athletic experience is characterized by over-commitment at an early age and big business at the expense of physical well being and behavioral progress.

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” – Nelson Mandela

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” – Nelson Mandela

Nothing dominates adolescence quite as much as our deep want to belong. It is an overwhelming drive that fuels bizarre and inconsistent behavior. Sometime between middle school and high school, we typically look outside the family to our peer group as we seek to figure out who we are going to be in this world. Some are led to gangs, others to a choir, and many more to sports. Sure our kids get involved in sports for the pure love of play, but as we age and sports require more sacrifice, it is the need to belong and form an identity that makes sport such an overwhelming force.

Whether we like it or not, we seek acceptance as a biological imperative. As Daniel Coyle explains in the Culture Code1: “The subconscious mind is obsessively looking for belonging cues for survival.” Our biology expected a nomadic lifestyle where we lived in bands of 100 or less, all deeply essential to the group and individual’s survival. We need to belong because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t survive a week. Any number of irrational behaviors make sense when we understand the deeply rooted, bio-evolutionary necessity to connect and be part of a group.

When market specialization came, our society’s drift from common purposes that has culminated with deep mental angst and predicated the political polarization wrought by our population’s deep spiritual need for some group identity. At play are two of Tony Robbin’s six paradoxical human needs that we all will meet:

  1. Connection
  2. Significance

While these are essential for adults also, it is our youth sports culture that I find to be on the most troubling trajectory.

The Heroic Role-Player Archetype

Most adults who still love the strength game started out competing in youth athletics.

Athletics seemingly taught us everything. Regardless of the sport, we learned the power of individuals coming together and striving as a unit towards a common purpose. You could be a less talented player, but through maturity and effort, be invaluable to team chemistry and elevate the play of teammates.

The heroic role-player archetype was reinforced daily. We learned to put faith in others and sacrifice for the common good. Belonging was solidified through common adversity, common experience, and by sticking with a core group as we played multiple school sports. We truly were (enter your high school mascot here).

There was a tradition. The community rallied around you. We experienced the beauty of one team with one purpose – to win together. Athletes typically shared the seasonal patterns of the year – 1st sport, off-season, 2nd sport, summer workouts, etc. Sports beautifully replicated the tribal human need to belong and served as a context for the transfer of values and rites of passage that have been foundational to all great communities.

Certainly, there are exceptions to this simple narrative. Coaches and players could be egotistical and communities might have more readily excused the deviant behavior and poor academic performance amongst athletes. Still, the overwhelming lessons and benefits of youth sports stemmed from personal responsibility, sacrifice, and most of all working on behalf of a group with a common purpose.

The modern athletic experience is characterized by very different trends. Youth sports have become big business. Club sports teams, specialty skills coaches, and even sport specific strength training is pushed at earlier and earlier ages each year. Supply and Demand.

Today’s overly sanitized childhood does not feature a montage of free play, but rather a comfortable seat and the glow of an iPad. The play is reserved for adult supervision, best accomplished through time-intensive club sports. A shifting parenting paradigm prioritizes giving children the best of everything while eliminating hardship.

This overrides previous notions of the parental role being to mold and to create capable, resilient, contribution oriented citizens. Youth are provided everything short of free play, adversity, and humility. Children whose bodies have forgotten how to run are shipped from specialist to specialist, where a lack of physical literacyis compounded by repetitive overuse.

The Huge Commitment Demands of Club Sport

Adolescence, club sport is an all-encompassing commitment of time and finances. Coaches are increasingly effective at creating the illusion that specialization is essential. They rely on income streams that cannot withstand the inconvenience of an off-season. Long Term Athletic Development Models be damned. More coaching, more games, more showcases, more everything is the only way for your son or daughter not to be left behind – the only way to give your child the opportunities they deserve.

Parents plan their summers around 11-year-old travel ball schedules that land them in a different state each weekend. Every team claims to be elite and every parent becomes convinced their child is exceptional. Lack of playing time can always be resolved by a change of coaches. In this world, the customer is always right.

It becomes a badge of honor for families to travel further and sacrifice more of their precious lives to youth sport. Parents chase scholarships for 12-year-olds oblivious to the fact that, in this pursuit, they’ll spend more than college costs. Even those keenly aware that something is awry, resign themselves to the belief that this is what one has to do for their kids to play sports in the modern world. Sally likes softball and this is the only game in town. Except of course it’s a select team three towns over that travels to 12 others states.

As the expectations become more insane, many parents simply opt their kids out of youth sports. The Aspen Institute2 looked at six sports:

  1. Basketball
  2. Soccer
  3. Track & Field
  4. Football
  5. Baseball
  6. Softball

And reported a combined 2.6 million fewer 6-12-year-olds playing these sports between 2008 and 2013. Let’s put this in context. PE, is being removed from schools and obesity rates are skyrocketing, yet parents and families have gone away from athletics. They don’t quit because there aren’t enough banquets and trophies. They don’t quit because the level of competition is too high, in fact, it has been lowered as a consequence of sedentary childhood and a smaller pool of athletes. They don’t quit because of a lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding games.

On the contrary, it is the age-inappropriate, seriousness and unhealthy time commitment that drives families away. They quit because 9-year-olds were practicing three nights a week and then having tournaments every Saturday and Sunday. They quit because it’s hardly an option to just enjoy playing multiple sports in youth. They quit because family dinners and quality time are real values that should be protected.

For those still in it, junior high and high school bring the exciting new world of school sports- the opportunity to play with one’s peers on behalf of their entire school. The popular intention has shifted; however, by now, most athletes are conditioned to prioritize individual performance and find team-oriented approaches don’t adequately appreciate their unique gifts. Frustrated parents need to look no further than their bank accounts to find reinforcement that the high school coach can’t assess talent or game plan. Confirmation bias is always available.

The student’s schedule is now set on overdrive as their agents, pardon me… parents, fill weekends and evenings at games, practices, and showcases even while their child competes in school seasons. Parents will pay exorbitantly for their kid to get the respect and attention they deserve and with each dollar spent are more convinced that their son or daughter must be highly skilled. After all, that is what they’re purchasing.

Faced with an ever-changing cast of teammates, coaches, and advice, youth conclude their individual success is the point. Even those students who completely buy into the team ethos find that the team culture they inherit is far more selfish and less group-oriented than a consequence of the increasingly self-promotion based youth athletic culture. Few groups can overcome the immense parental reinforcement that team is secondary to their baby.

Everyone Gets a Trophy

Here is an all too common experience as explained by one California Athletic Director:

“It started on Thursday when the all-conference teams were released. Friday morning was spent responding to 3 parent emails that all seemed to know the exact motivation of every single coach that was involved in the voting process. Later that morning, a coach walked into my office and showed me a profanity-laden text message from a parent that was upset about the lack of recognition his kid received in the newspaper. Saturday, I was sitting at an event and was cornered by a parent who had obviously been saving up at least a year of frustration regarding the lack of recognition of her kid’s sport compared to the other sports on campus. If I had to summarize the major talking points of her 10 -minute venting session, I believe the term, blatantly discriminatory, would be a good start. Later that afternoon, one of my coaches had to send a parent back to the bleachers after she decided that the pregame warmup was a good time to discuss her kid’s playing time.”

This athletic director goes on to conclude that at least 80% of the concerns brought to him fall in one of two categories:

  1. Not enough playing time.
  2. Not enough personal recognition.

I do understand the emotion tied up in competitive athletics. My junior year of high school, I was very proud to play fullback and middle linebacker for the football team. Then, in the second game of the season, we were upset badly by an inferior opponent. Our run-oriented offense could not find a hole to run through.

The following Monday, Coach Moeller called me in to tell me that I was being moved to tight end, a position in our offense where I’d rarely touch the ball and my blocks would come without a head of steam. I became a glorified offensive lineman. As he explained, “The team needs help on the line. We need you.” That was that.

As any self-absorbed teen, I struggled to understand at first. The frustration quickly wore off, however, as I went about learning my new position and having a blast playing ball with my friends. As the emotion dissipated, it became obvious that Coach made the right decision. It was not about me, and, thank goodness, I had such a deep sense of my role that I didn’t distract the team with a narcissistic pity party.

In Reality, My Analysis Is Oversimplified. There are wonderful club coaches and invaluable, positive influences throughout the industry of club and select youth sports. As in every field, there are, also, some awful, high school coaches who warrant their criticism. Despite a wide variety of possible individual experiences, my concerns are with the overwhelming direction and cultural influence of modern youth sports.

We are stripping athletes of the most vital lessons from sports while also interrupting the ability for sports teams to create essential feelings of belonging. Many would conclude that any opportunity for belonging was eliminated when the stupid coach decided not to put Billy on the varsity. And this is why everyone gets a trophy, every t-ball team has names on the back of the jersey, and college students graduate confused as to why they aren’t immediately promoted to CEO.

Entitlement and Delayed Gratification

Today’s youth athletic culture has become a breeding ground for entitlement, narcissism, and most of all, alienation. It is yet another example of our culture depriving youth of the needs for fulfillment, success, and contribution to a purpose greater than their own promotion. Youth need values, boundaries, the ability to delay gratification, and the impetus to develop a sense of purpose.

They need activity, a love of movement, and a sense of discipline. Most of all they need a sense of deep belonging. Not a superficial buddy to perpetuate their “Snap Streak” or an egocentric collection of narcissists happy to justify their every impulse. Belonging is not fitting in. It is being empowered to develop an authentic view of oneself and having that person embraced within a group. It is an organic creation only possible when people care about values more important than themselves.

Long-Term Athletic Development

So what do we do? The number of sports that have escaped these trends is shrinking rapidly. Many parents see the warning signs and don’t know what to do. I’d love to see common sense youth sports leagues spring up behind vividly defined, age-appropriate values that cut costs by eliminating designer jerseys, pep-rallies, and ridiculous travel, and that respected the needs of children based on a long-term athletic development model, like Canada’s Sport for Life.

High school athletics will only be fixed when enough pressure is put on the NCAA to make the obvious changes that prioritize what is best for athletes and sport. Change depends on people who care enough to work on behalf of a better path for our youth.


1. Daniel Coyle, “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly successful groups.” Pub. The US, Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Randowm House, LLC., New York 2018.

2. Alice Lee, “7 Charts that Show the State of Youth Sports in the US and Why it Matters,” The Aspen Institute, Feb 24, 2015.