Let kids be kids: Why 15 is too early to specialize in one sport

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Carlow GAA has never been known to upset the apple cart. Being one of the smallest and lowest profile counties in the country will do that to you, but something happened to the organization during the week that so enraged them, they felt they had to speak out. The manager of the local Carlow/Kilkenny underage league of Ireland team, had informed a group of 15 year old boys that if they were to continue playing other sports at the same time as soccer, they would not be considered for selection in future.

It seemed an overly harsh judgement at the time, but the manager of the side, Mark Ross, came onto social media during the week to explain the situation and why he believed it was best for him and his staff to adopt this practice.

When you put it like that-wanting children to concentrate on one sport to avoid burn out and time to focus on their studies-it sounds almost logical, but the GAA fraternity weren’t happy. Both Eamonn O’Hara from Sligo and Darran O’Sullivan from Kerry came onto social media to voice their displeasure at the restriction. It’s a bit ironic really, considering it’s not unusual for the GAA to impose such bans. We’ve come a long way since the 1950’s and 60’s when, because of Rule 27, any GAA person caught playing, or even attending, a sports event for another game, was pretty much banished from the association.

Then again, if you want to be the very best you can be at a sport, a degree of specialization seems necessary. Tiger Woods hardly had a golf club out of his hands from the age of 2 and Rory Mcilroy’s experience was something similar. And Lionel Messi must have clocked up thousands of hours playing on the streets of Argentina before anyone from Barcelona FC came over to persuade him to sign. This would seem to support the view of Malcolm Gladwell, who a few years ago wrote a book called “Outliers” in which he detailed how in order to achieve world class level at a subject, someone must put at least 10,000 hours of high class practice into it.

On the flip side, some of our most celebrated international sports stars have excelled at a number of sports before choosing one. Paul O’Connell was an outstanding teenage swimmer, and only really took up Rugby in his late teens, before becoming one of the greatest second rows the country had ever seen. Shane Long only began playing soccer around the age of 12, and had time to play minor hurling for Tipperary for 2 years, before becoming a professional and international player.

Ireland has always been a nation with a great love for sport, and not just one particular game. It’s probably a toss up between Soccer and Gaelic Football as the country’s most popular pastime, but then Rugby is arguably our most successful international sport and hurling is the national one. Then you have Horse Racing and Golf which are both massive individual participation devotions in their own right.

But has this benefitted us? And what are the advantages of focusing on a particular sport? A few years ago a similar study was conducted in the USA by menshealth.com. In the piece (https://www.nsr-inc.com/scouting-news/multi-sport-athletes-vs-single-sport-athletes/) the journalist Lou Schuler posed the question of various experts which particular option was best, and it was deemed that a multi sport athlete benefits over one who is just focused on one.

John Graham, who works in sports and human performance in Allenwood, Pennsylvania gave the following opinion “I’ve always endorsed kids playing multiple sports. It’s better for them from a physiological standpoint. The kids who play multiple sports become better athletically” It was a similar story for Eric Cressey who worked in sports performance in Massachussets “You rarely see someone who played one sport all the way through go on to have a successful career in the big leagues. I’m constantly amazed at how many late bloomers (there are). They weren’t great athletes at a young age, but that broad range of abilities made it possible for them to become great at a specific sport”

According to the men’s health article, it was deemed that age 16 or 17 was the ideal time for a person to specialize in a team sport. That’s a couple of years outside the restriction placed down by the Carlow and Kilkenny under 15 league of Ireland team. The theory seems to be that as football players are being drafted younger and younger by elite academies in England, it’s better for kids to be focused on one sport at an earlier age.

And yet,that somewhat goes against what we have seen from some Irish international players in the last few years. Seamus Coleman only travelled over to become a professional in England at the age of 20, and if he hadn’t done so, he was all set to throw in his lot and try to make the Donegal senior football team. One could imagine him being a Karl Lacey style attacking wing back in Jim McGuinness’ 2012 team. Kevin Doyle was another player who transferred over at a later age, and he often played Gaelic football with Adamstown in Wexford in his youth. Likewise, Stephen Hunt was an outstanding underage hurler in Waterford as a teenager, and we’ve already mentioned Shane Long.

It works both ways too. In the last few years we’ve had the likes of Kevin Feely from Kildare and Ciaran Lyng from Wexford return from professional football to excel in Gaelic football. There’s been numerous other examples of Brendan Murphy, Tadhg Kennelly and Marty Clarke coming home from playing Australian Rules and integrating almost seamlessly back into Gaelic life. In all of these cases playing other sports seemed to help, rather than hinder, an athlete’s progress. Perhaps for a once in a generation talent like Messi, Woods or Mcilroy there’s the benefit of having specialized in one sport all their life. But for the majority of other athletes, a multi-disciplinary approach has proved beneficial.

In another report by the website www.nsr.com in the US it was found that 30 of the top 32 picks in the 2017 NFL draft were multi-sport athletes. It’s an inexact science. The majority of youngsters play more than one sport, and there usually is a correlation between the top performers in all of them, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have been a major deterrent to a teenager’s sporting success if they play more than one sport when they are young.

The worry from the Kilkenny Carlow manager seems to be that if his proteges play more than one sport they will get burned out, but conversely it has been argued that focusing on just one sport can increase the chances of burnout as a player will be focusing on the same set of muscles all the time and get repetitive injuries. They also more likely to become bored of playing the same game all the time and start to resent it.

You could argue the toss over what’s right and wrong for a young talent until the cows come home, but the fact remains there is no exact answer over whether specialization or multiple integration is better. Increasingly though articles such as this (http://www.stack.com/a/new-study-reveals-whether-multi-sport-or-single-sport-athletes-have-a-better-chance-for-success) and this (https://www.michaelcurtispt.com/early-sport-specialization-drawbacks/) suggest playing multiple sports is better. So if Mark Ross thinks it will benefit his young soccer stars to play just one sport in the short term then that’s his prerogative. But he might find that such narrow minded thinking works against him and his players in the long term.

Perhaps the best explanation for playing multiple sports comes from Houston Texans NFL player JJ Watt, himself an expert Ice Hockey player in his youth. “If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind. Let kids be kids. They’ll become better all round athletes and have more fun”

Let kids be kids. Wise, yet obvious words. It’s just a pity we don’t always live by them.

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