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Specializing at a Young Age Will Stunt Your Growth, Not Improve It
According to USA Hockey, colleges and universities across the country are recruiting talented and skilled hockey players before they enter high school. Verbal commitments are being made between prospects and perennial powerhouses like the University of Wisconsin. Talented players who don’t want to go the college route opt for the major junior system in Canada and then go pro at 18 or 19. There is a growing number of very young players in the National Hockey League, with a handful of them becoming captains of their professional teams such as Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. The emergence of young athletes taking on key roles in the elite circles of Division 1 and professional sports is making it seem like specialization is the way to go for younger players. Ice hockey is not the only sport that identifies talent at unusually young ages. Major football universities find players fresh out of high school. A lot can be said about the physical and mental development of an athlete in high school and college. Schools like Yale University will not consider young recruits for their varsity sports because they understand how much can change mentally for a teenager between the ages of 14 and 18. For them, academic integrity is as important as athletic performance. Therefore, giving them a guarantee four years earlier is not attractive. They want to see where that candidate will be down the road before making any commitments. What happened to waiting and buying the best? We don’t elect presidents 4 years before being sworn in, why should we choose what jersey an athlete will wear before they get there? If you keep the competition playing close to the actual time they’re going to do it, the road to it will be more about process and development.
Ten years ago, it was thought that athletes needed more time to develop and gain a competitive edge. In ice hockey, post graduate programs (PG years) in prep schools and junior teams were common elements seen in competitive college hockey programs. It was thought that in order to have an advantage, you needed time to develop physically and mentally, as well as experience playing with other like-minded players. When you knew you had a long road ahead of you to college and the professional ranks, specializing in your sport at age 12 wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Parents, coaches and pundits worried that too much pressure at a young age to perform and excel would cause players to burn out prematurely.
Performance coaches like myself believe that while players should focus primarily on two sports, their programs should include the skills and abilities needed to perform well in as many as 10 other sports or activities. Even if you don’t play baseball, ice hockey players who have the ability to go to the batting cage and hit a high percentage of pitches. Hockey players who can play baseball well will have better reaction time on the ice and will be able to react better to pucks in flight from a high shot or when they throw in a bad pass. Likewise, playing soccer is great for development for beginning ice hockey players, as many highly skilled players are very good at carrying and handling the puck with their feet. Whether your main sport is baseball or ice hockey, you can learn a lot by playing other sports like tennis, soccer, football, etc.
The spectrum is wide in terms of what parents think their children should do. Some want their kids to be like Sidney Crosby and force them to specialize at age 8, and others want their kids to just have fun and do whatever they want for as long as they want. Both approaches are bad. Specializing or being withdrawn is bad. The key is to keep intensity, focus, encouragement and energy high with low expectations and pressure. Young athletes should be taught discipline, passion, love for training and sports, and heart. It’s a long road to intercollegiate and professional sports. The people who make it and stay there are the ones who love the unglamorous aspects, the long commutes, the sweat, the low pay (the pay for most pro athletes isn’t ARod’s), the relentless schedule, and the inherent uncertainty that comes from a profession that is so fluid – where one day he wants the best team, and on the day the other team that will watch you is the farm club of the worst team.
Success comes from loving what you do, whatever it is. The day it becomes a job is the day you know it might be time to think about a new path. Athletes playing for glory will be in for a rude awakening. Athletes who can push through adversity and overcome it through hard work and staying focused are the ones you know really love what they do. The turnaround for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team shows tremendous determination, will and passion to improve and better themselves. They didn’t worry about playing as well as perennial powerhouses like the Boston Red Sox. They played the game the way they knew best and defined their path to the World Series their way and on their terms. The way they went from being the worst team in major league baseball to World Series runners-up is an example of how individual athletes should approach their development. You can’t go out there and just be in it to win. Unfortunately, raw desire isn’t enough to get you there. You must be willing and able to put in the hard work that is unappreciated and underappreciated. By doing this, you put yourself in a better position to start doing well.
As a sports development coach, I am useless to a person who just wants to play in a recreational league and get fanfare when he scores a goal. When someone is ready to work hard, put in long hours and sweat – I’m the perfect person for them. I will help them get where they want to go. There is no glamor in what I do, other than the satisfaction in knowing that I played a role in helping an athlete demonstrate his abilities to an audience. I do what I do because I have love and passion for sports.
The key to professional bliss is specialization in commitment to hard work. Whatever you do to get ahead will come later. Don’t worry about what you’ll get at 14 to play college sports. Keep your head down and stay focused on getting better. A lot can happen in high school. If you keep your options open at 14, you’ll have more to fall back on when you’re 18.
If you specialize in football at 14 and it doesn’t work out, you won’t have anything else to fall back on. If you play several sports and play well in several of them, if one doesn’t lead to a paycheck or fame, maybe another will. The more options you have, the less pressure you’ll feel to excel in one, making it more enjoyable. No one wants to think that everything depends on how you do at one thing.
Keep your options open and have fun, but remember that you won’t improve without hard work. So decide what your priorities are and then go from there. If you’re not willing to sweat or do the necessary things to improve your game, then don’t expect to play at the next level. There is nothing wrong with playing downloadable games. You have to be honest with yourself about your skill level and willingness to put in the time needed to do it. Sidney Crosby, Eli Manning, Tom, Brady, Michael Jordan and the like didn’t get where they did just by going through life. They assessed their abilities and accordingly determined where they wanted to go. When they did, they worked tirelessly to make sure they got there. Because of that due diligence, they all became prominent in the professional arena.
The key takeaway from this article is that you need more determination than skill. And more importantly, you need more love than determination. Therefore, you need more love than skill. If you don’t enjoy what you do, it won’t matter how good you are because you won’t want to do it anymore. Being focused is different from specializing. You play a lot of sports. Stay active in many different things. Do it because you love it. You can decide later which will enable you to do so in college or professionally. You will benefit more from playing other sports and training for those sports than spending all that time training for one sport. My program is so effective because despite your focus, I expose you to movements and exercises common to other activities, making you a more complete and well-rounded athlete.
Stay tuned for more articles from DSVAthletes, owned and operated by Derrick Wong. We write about all things sports. We want to help you get where you want to go and enjoy the process and the result. We’ll help you stay focused and in great shape.
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