Single-Digit Soccer: Don’t specialize … really

The chorus against specializing in one sport at an early age is growing.

Just today, I’ve stumbled into two pieces:

– Specific: NPR on kids suffering back injuries.

– General: Changing the Game author John O’Sullivan at Potomac Soccer Wire, presenting mountains of data.

It’s such a temptation, isn’t it? Your awesome athletes get overrun by a team that’s practicing twice a week through the whole school year and doing a few things in the summer, and you feel like you need to keep up, right?

(Of course, it’s also tempting for me to print out O’Sullivan’s piece and present it to the gloating parents in our indoor league, but that’s another rant.)

For the Single-Digit Soccer book, I’ve already interviewed a lot of famous athletes. The vast majority played more than one sport growing up.

So you need to ask — is it your goal to develop a good high school (or college or even beyond) soccer player and a well-rounded person? Or to win U9 games?

Update: Thanks to Setting the Table for pointing me to a radio discussion with John O’Sullivan and radio host Marc Amazon. I like the host. Then he gets a scary caller — “Dave from Columbus,” who says he’s a coach of elite 9- and 10-year-old football players. He’s not worried about burnout because the only players who burn out are the ones that stink.

So, so many things wrong with that statement:

1. What can you tell about a kid at 10 years old? You can’t even tell that much at age 17. Freddy Adu and Lionel Messi were once close to the same level. U17 stars wash out all the time. So you’re telling me you can tell who’s a good player and who isn’t before kids even hit puberty? Suppose your good little running back goes through a growth spurt and ends up 6-4 and scrawny? Suppose your big lineman doesn’t grow much more? Suppose you had a 9-year-old who was going through a clumsy growth spurt and settled into being a pretty good athlete by age 11, and you told him to go away at age 10?

2. What’s the point? You just want to coach kids who look like the total package at age 9, and the rest can just go sit on the sofa?

3. “If these kids don’t specialize, how are they going to make any money?” How many pros do you know, Dave? How many of them specialized? Not many. A lot of NBA players played other sports. I can’t think of a soccer player I’ve interviewed who played nothing else.

But Dave is also an old-school soccer basher who thinks soccer is a sport for weaklings and isn’t American. Bully for him.

I think Dave has built a business convincing parents they need to pay him so little Billy will be a D1 football player. And guess what? No one can promise that. I’m not going to call Dave from Columbus an outright fraud, but he’s not looking good.

“So how do I know you’re not an absolute idiot,” Amazon asks him. Good question. The next caller also buries Dave, pointing out how many prominent NFL players are crossover athletes. Some NFL players barely even played football growing up. And there’s another three-word argument: Michael. Jordan. Baseball.

So Dave clearly falls into the Friday Night Tykes school of stubborn old-school idiocy. We don’t have any of those coaches in soccer. Right?

Another update: Another tangentially related link — participation levels in youth sports are dropping as the “casual” player is left out.

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