The Theory of Specialization – Sports

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How does the Theory of Specialization relate to sports? Is it real and why is it gaining traction across the country?

The theory of specialization was first introduced by Plato. It is an economic term and basically states that the need of a state could be supplied by four or five individuals. This theory was advanced through history by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Smith believed that specialization of labor allowed companies to produce more goods and increase each worker’s ability. This theory, although not applied to sports in an official capacity, has been gaining traction throughout sports in the league ranks and is permeating the high school ranks as well. It seems to have skipped the middle school areas because middle school sports are more about inclusion rather than exclusion.

The theory of specialization, as it applies to sports, relates to how a parent, coach or other significant adult in a child’s life would lead a child to drop other sports and focus one particular sport in order to be really good or “specialized” in that area. That makes sense to some degree, but when a child is still growing physically and the body is changing does specialization help or hurt the child?

The body needs to use all of the muscles all of the time in a growing child and especially in an athlete. And the most natural way to do that is to participate in multiple sports. This is why in schools PE teachers have the students participate in all types of activities. This is to work all of the muscles. Cross-fit, the new take on cross-training from the 80s, is the new craze in fitness. It works all of the muscles. It makes for a well-rounded athletic specimen.

Specialization too soon can hurt the child and lead to the following:

  1. Impaired muscles
  2. Injury
  3. Sport-burnout
  4. Resentment

You can put this list in any order that you want. No matter how you slice it, the results are not healthy or helpful for a child pursuing sports.

The body needs to use all of the muscles in order to grow properly. If a person begins to specialize in one sport too soon, using the same muscles repetitively year round in this sport, the other muscles begin to suffer. This leads to the non-dominant muscle becoming pulled in an abnormal way because the dominant muscles are so much larger because of repetitive use.

Since the body is built symmetrically, it is designed to be relatively the same on both sides. But you can tell even in small things which part of your body you use the most. Here is a mini-experiment to prove my point: Look at your hands. Notice that your dominant, or writing, hand is slightly bigger than your non-dominant hand. It’s the same thing with your feet. The one that gets the most workout is the one that is bigger.   And the same thing applies with your entire body. If you are right side dominant then that side tends to be bigger because it does most of the work.

When the muscles specialize, they tend to shorten to the specific task that they are required to do. However, when the tasks change on a regular basis then the muscles becomes more flexible and elastic so that it is prepared to do any task asked of it.

So, back to specialization. Am I saying that specialization is wrong? No. It becomes necessary if your child is going to advance in sports beyond high school or even as a career choice. However, specialization should be done based on the desires of the child, not the desires of the coach or even the parent. A child should be allowed to be in all of the sports that he/she feels capable of competing in until they decide on what sport they want to specialize in. After all, your child is the one doing the work. And with kids if the work is not fun, then it is not worth doing.

Also, just because you get some attention from a recruiter in a sport, does not automatically mean that you should drop everything and focus solely on that sport. *CAVEAT* If you know the reality of you getting recruitment looks and possibly advancing in the 2nd or 3rd sport is very minute beyond high school then by all means do what is best for your child.

As parents you do have to perhaps limit the sports to what you can handle financially.   However, even if you don’t do all the summer leagues and just narrow events down to one league sport for the summer, you can still keep your child going in the other sports with summer camps. My daughter plays three sports and is also in an elite triple jump program for track. She does volleyball camps and does summer basketball league. Her primary focus in summer is track because that is her sport that she wants to focus on in college and also wants to use to go to the Olympics.

All of these sport things are subject to my daughter’s schedule and what events take priority. However, she is in full control of what she wants to do and when she is going to begin to specialize. Its only fair because she is the one that has to do the work.  She knows her body and how much it is capable of enduring.  And as long as its fun for her she will continue.

Your child should be given the opportunity to play as many sports as he/she can so that they will have more chances to be really great at the sport of their choosing rather than the sport of the coach’s demand or the parent’s desire. Many times a child will incorrectly infer that they are not good enough for another sport if you want them to specialize too soon.

After all, the child is the controlling partner in this investment. They put in the work, they go out and produce and they deal with the consequences of their actions on the field or court. Our job as parents is to guide the child to the best possible scenario for them, and teach them how to navigate their lives in such a way that the each decision made is driven by the motivation of giving them the most successful outcome for the work that they put in.

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