Landscape Of Youth Sports And The Foundation To Be Active For Life | Part 1

Landscape Of Youth Sports And The Foundation To Be Active For Life

Part 1 of the Athletic and Social Development Are Keys To Being Active For Life

By Jimmy Yoo

Parents of youth sports athletes often ask, what is best for my son or daughter when it comes to playing sports? What should he/she be doing to develop as an athlete and most of all as a person?  At the heart of it, most parents want their children to participate in sports to build character, learn life lessons, develop friendships, to be active, and to enjoy the experience.

When Do These Expectations Change?

The moment a child participating in youth sports is successful and touted as being extremely talented, the seduction of success, positive validation from others (i.e., parents, coaches, and teammates), and winning start to cloud those core expectations for both the parent and child.  For parents, the idea of their child climbing the ladder of success by using their child’s talents to open doors for better coaching, invitations to train and play with the best athletes their age, the pressure to commit time and resources to just one sport (single sport specialization), and ultimately, the dream of having their child receive a college scholarship or become a professional athlete become the primary objectives.  Surprisingly, these expectations can start as early as age 12 and younger.

The Case For Being A Single Sport Versus A Multi-Sport Athlete

The topic of single sport specialization and multi-sport participation at the youth sports level is always a hot topic amongst parents and coaches.  We are currently in an era where early sport specialization is the expected norm.  Travel teams, select teams, and/or competitive club programs (of all sports) are promising youth sports athletes that early sport specialization will make them a better player, increase their chances of being noticed by a college coach or professional scout, and/or provide the tools and resources necessary for athletes to one day become a professional athlete.  Parents whose children are on these teams will recruit as well by telling prospective parents that early sport specialization will increase their child’s chances of one day making the varsity team for their local high school and to receive an athletic scholarship to a Division-I college/university.

A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletesis a USA Today article written by Jaimie Duffek.  Duffek cites that athletes tend to specialize in a sport on average at age 12.  She then states the following as reasons why early sports specialization can benefit young athletes (Duffek, 2017):

Earlier Peak Performance.

For sports like gymnastics, athletes’ peak performance is reached in adolescence.  Experts agree that specialization enables these athletes to compete in their sport when it matters most.

Attain “age-group” success.

Specialization may be the best way for athletes to experience “age-group”  In other words, if it’s a baseball player’s dream to win the Little League World Series, committing to baseball by the age of six or seven is the way to gain success in this age group.

Join elite clubs with access to top coaches.

By focusing on one sport from a young age, athletes have access to elite clubs and programs that attract top coaches. These best-in-class coaches have resources at their disposal to help players develop the skills they need to play their sport at the highest level.

Achieve the 10,000-hour rule.

Many advocates of early specialization also cite the “10,000-hour rule,” which indicates that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest level of performance in an activity.  If an athlete starts intense, focused training before the age of 12, chances are, they’ll hit that 10,000 hour mark much sooner than an athlete splitting their time between multiple endeavors.

For these reasons, it makes sense why single sport specialization can be beneficial for athletes, in the short term.  The important takeaway from Duffek’s article is that single sport specialization at the youth level is to an athlete’s advantage if they are seeking age-group success.  So, if a club or organization preaches that they will help your son or daughter get a college scholarship or more opportunities to become a professional athlete, it should raise some red flags.

Lastly, when people discuss single sport specialization at a young age, there is always the counterargument stating the importance of multisport participation.  Duffek is no different, she flips the coin and provides the advantages of being a multi-sport athlete as well  (Duffek, 2017):

Experience long-term success.

While it might sound counterintuitive, multisport athletes tend to experience longer-term success over their one-sport peers.  They are also more consistent performers who tend to suffer fewer injuries, and multisport athletes have a much higher chance of being active adults.

Limits overuse injuries.

Overuse injuries occur when an athlete repeats the same motion over and over again.  Playing multiple sports gives athletes time to heal and develop different muscle groups, tendons, and ligaments.  With the rise in overuse injuries in youth sports, this is an important point to remember.

Less pressure, less burnout.

Burnout is a real problem for athletes who specialize too early.  After all the practices, skills development, and games growing up, they (athletes) get sick of their sport by the time college comes around.  Multi-sport athletes haven’t had that intense emphasis on one sport. Therefore, they are more likely to retain their love of the game.

Accumulate cross-sport skills.

Multi-sport athletes gain different kinds of skills that they can apply from one sport to the next.  This enhances hand-eye coordination, balance, endurance, explosion, communication, and athletic agility.  Who wouldn’t want the speed of a sprinter with the hand-eye coordination of a baseball player on their team?

There are valid reasons for kids to participate as a single sport and as a multisport athlete.  As stated by Duffek, sport specialization is better for the short term or for athletes seeking immediate success at their age, while participating in multi-sports is better for long-term success as an athlete.  There is no easy answer to this debate, especially for parents, since they are ultimately the one’s who have to decide what is best for their child.

So, What Are We Missing?

One thing that is often forgotten is the importance of childhood development and socialization. There are plenty of examples of child athletes who were extremely talented and were highly successful at a young age.  This list includes athletes like Tiger Woods, Todd Marinovich, Freddy Adu, and Jennifer Capriati.  All f these athletes achieved early success in their sport and went on to become professional athletes, yet struggled socially and emotionally.

A Life Long Process

Participation in youth sports can be a helpful part of the process of developing physical skills and life skills.  And, as mentioned at the start of this article, the heart of youth participation in sports is about building character, learning life lessons, developing friendships, being active, and making sure that children just play in the moment and enjoy the experience.

Consider the following information and think about whether these needs are being met for your child as an athlete in their sport(s), by their coaches, by the organizational culture of the team(s) or club(s) they play on, by their teammates, and from parents.

Physical and Social Development

While your child’s physical development is dependent on being active, her/his social interactions are important for personal growth.  Being physically and socially active can work hand in hand to help or stunt a child’s growth as an athlete and as a person.  To better understand this process, let’s examine the long-term development of your child from both athletic and social emotional perspectives.

Long-Term Development

Erik Erickson’s Theory of Personality and the 7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development provide useful information to help parents understand the social and athletic milestones for your children.

Erik Erickson, a renowned developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, believed that over the course of a person’s life, she/he develops through social adaptation.  Meaning, as people interact and develop social relationships throughout their lives, their ability to problem-solve determines their development and personality.  Erickson developed 8 Psychosocial Stages of Development from birth to death.  (McLeod, 2013)

7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) was created by Canadian Sports for Life Society.  This model provides age appropriate levels of training and skills development for athletes.  The goal of the Canadian Sports for Life Society is to educate people on age appropriate training and skills development so that kids and adults will become more active, stay active, and pursue excellence in sport.  This information can be found on the Canadian Sports for Life webpage:

Together, Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development (McLeod, 2013) and Canadian Sports for Life Society’s Long Term Athletic Development Model (LTAD) can help parents of youth sports athletes better understand the social-emotional and athletic milestones that your child will face over the course of his or her life from infancy to adulthood.  I categorized these two methodologies into age specific areas of growth.  I hope this information helps parents to determine if their child is participating in an environment that allows for physical and social-emotional growth.


Jelena Jojic | Stocksy


Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers: Foundation Building (birth to age 6)

Erickson’s Stage 1 (Trust versus Mistrust, age 0-1), Stage 2 (Autonomy versus Doubt and Shame, age 1-3), and Stage 3 (Initiative versus Guilt, age 3-5);

7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD): Stage 1 (Active Start, age 0-6)


Erickson’s Stage 1 (Trust versus Mistrust, age 0-1)

At this stage, infants completely depend on others (parents, family, and caregivers) to get their needs met.  This includes food, shelter, and the need to bond with and trust others.  If these needs are met, a child will learn to trust her/his environment and will form positive attachments to others.

Erikson stated that some mistrust is necessary to learn how to discriminate between honest and dishonest people.  However, when mistrust wins over trust, a child will be frustrated, withdrawn, suspicious, pessimistic, and lack self-confidence.

Erickson’s Stage 2 (Autonomy versus Doubt/Shame, age 1-3)

This is a time when children start to develop self-control and self-confidence. For this to happen, parents need to create a supportive learning environment. This can include learning how to walk, talk, and use the toilet.  If parents are able to encourage their child to try and do things for herself/himself, then the child will learn to cope with future situations that require choice, control, and independence.

Erickson’s Stage 3 (Initiative versus Guilt, age 3-5)

A child will learn to balance between an eagerness to try new things and become more responsible.  If parents are supportive during this stage, their child will learn to accept certain rules, without guilt, about what is allowed and expected.  This creates a place of safety and security that allows children to foster their imagination through play and make sense of their world. Play starts to become goal-directed and children develop a sense of purpose in their lives.

7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Stage 1 (Active Start, age 0-6)

The focus for children between the ages of 0-6 is acquisition of basic physical skills and balance that build the foundation for physical development.  Things that are introduced at this age become ingrained habits.  During this time, it is up to adults (parents, caretakers, coaches, and teachers) to introduce and encourage children to learn and develop. Kids should be encouraged to engage in unstructured play, by themselves or with others, to develop physical coordination, motor skills, brain function, posture, and balance.


Personal Perspective

As you can see, experiences at this stage provide foundational developmentfor your child.  The first year of life, a child is more or less completely dependent on others, specifically parents and caretakers.  It isn’t till age two or three that kids are more active and start to become more independent.  It is typically the time when kids start taking classes and engage in organized physical activities as well.

Martial Arts

When my son and daughter were four and six (years old), I wanted to enroll them in martial arts. When I visited a taekwondo studio, I was surprised to find that five and six year olds were lined up and just standing there while the instructor belted out commands and skills for the kids to practice.  If you have watched the old Karate Kid movie, it was a little like walking into the Cobra Kai Dojo.  Not nearly as intense, but the expressions on the kids’ faces were enough to decide this isn’t what I wanted for my kids. These kids looked terrified and somewhat bored.

Luckily, our local recreational center offered a bunch of different sports classes. What I liked about the rec center was that the teachers were less focused on the group learning to do things exactly the right way.  There was no heavy emphasis on sport specific skills development, unlike that taekwondo class.  For my kids’ age group, these coaches were more focused on engaging kids in fun activities and games that applied to each sport, and also just allowed them to run around and be active.

As a result, we enrolled our kids in a bunch of different sports classes that year.  Classes included, gymnastics, swimming, and soccer. Reflecting on that year, my wife and I were happy to see that our kids had learned the basic skills like footwork and ball control in soccer, tumbling and balance in gymnastics, and basic swim strokes in swimming class.  The added bonus was that these classes were also a nice introduction to group dynamics and social interactions with other kids their age, as well as with coaches. In the end, we were happy to see that our children felt comfortable taking sports classes, built friendships, and enjoyed playing each sport.  We give a lot of credit to the coaches and the recreational center for providing a curriculum that had the right balance of encouragement, instruction, play, and discipline.


Read Part Two Here!



Botcher, S. (2014, November 23). 9 communities to pilot Canadian Sport for Life approach to sport and physical activity – Active For Life. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

Cherry, K. (2015, July 02). How Erik Erikson’s Own Identity Crisis Shaped His Theories. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

Duffek, J. (2017, March 28), A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletes. Retrieved March 09, 2018, from

Jojic, J. (n.d.). Running, Climbing, Jumping, and Kicking[Photograph found in, New York]. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from×343.jpg

Long-Term Athletic Development Framework (n.d.).  Retrieved March 09, 2018 from

Ludbrook, K. (2015, November 12). South Africa vs New Zealand photo preview 50549933[Photograph found in Sports, Rugby Union Photo, European Press Photo Agency, Frankfurt, Germany]. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from (Originally photographed 2012, June 12)

epa03425465 Players of New Zealand (back) perform the Haka, or war dance, as the Springboks of South Africa (front) accept the challenge before the Rugby Championship rugby union test match at Soccer City in Soweto, South Africa, 06 October 2012. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Erik Erikson. Retrieved from

Miner, J. W. (2016, June 1), Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13.  Retrieved March 09, 2018 from


[1]Full descriptions of both developmental models are available at the end of this article.

*Note: Erikson’s model and LTADdo not have exact dates as both models recognize that everyone develops at their own pace.

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