When my younger daughter was 8, I was talking to another mom on the playground one late-winter afternoon while we waited for the kids to get out of school. "I'm thinking of starting my daughter in soccer," she told me.
"You're too late," was the first thing that ran through my mind.
Youth soccer season was still a few weeks away, but I wasn't thinking about sign-up deadlines. I was thinking that by this time, my daughter had been playing soccer since she was 4, and for three years with the same core group of girls. What sort of team would a brand-new, unskilled player end up on? What sort of experience would she have?
Thankfully, I realized the absurdity of what I was thinking before I opened my mouth.
Since when is 8 too late to start a sport? Well, since children have been pushed to pick one sport and specialize in it at younger and younger ages.
Dr. Roberta Kraus is vice president of the Center for Sports Psychology in Monument, and sees athletes of all levels, middle school to professional, in private practice. She says there's some benefit from the early specialization, but more often it works against kids.
It is true, of course, that those who start young can experience early success in a sport. But then they feel pressure to stay in it — even as other kids develop physically and erase their early edge, or as they just get bored or burned out.
Sometimes, that pressure comes from the parents who've invested time and money over the years — especially if kids have started playing on club teams, which is where Kraus says most college coaches do their recruiting now. (When you include the cost of traveling to out-of-state tournaments, four years of my older daughter playing club volleyball will probably come close to equaling two years at a state university.) When a kid asks to try other activities, parents see a return on investment — the potential for a college scholarship — slipping away.
And even if they're set free, kids whose identity is so closely tied to early success in a sport can suffer when they face not playing it anymore. It's not unlike an adult who loses a job.
Specialization can also lead to "overuse" injuries in kids, since you can nowadays play virtually any sport year-round. Concussions have gotten a lot of press in recent years, but the STOP Sports Injuries campaign (stopsportsinjuries.org) reports that overuse injuries are endemic.
"More than 5 million kids under the age of 18 suffer a sports-related injury each year with approximately half of these due to overuse, according to the CDC," the campaign stated in a release promoting April as Youth Sports Safety Month. Playing more than one sport allows children to exercise muscles in different ways.
In the August 2013 report, "Game Changers: Stats, Stories and What Communities Are Doing to Protect Young Athletes," published by the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide, renowned sports medicine doctor James Andrews says, "I have seen my patient population and surgical cases get increasingly younger. Children, parents and coaches need to realize that kids need to take a break from playing one sport year-round."
As Kraus sees it, "The greatest gift any parents give their young child is to expose them to a lot of things." As that child gets older, he or she will be more ready when it's time to specialize.
And even then, she says, "Parents have to be willing to be coached by their child." She recommends checking in with children and asking: How are things going? Are they still enjoying the experience? What can you do to support them?
When it comes to that last question, the hardest part is being ready to respect the answer.
When Kraus' son played golf in high school, she and her husband would walk the course with him every match. When he made varsity his senior year, she asked. His reply: "I don't want you and dad to come to my matches."
So they struck a deal. If she couldn't watch, he would have to come home and provide details — what club worked, how he played, and lastly what he shot that day. She remembers, "I didn't go to one match his senior year."