When Is the Right Age for a Child to Specialize in a Sport?

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

How many times have you seen parents running their kids from one sporting event to the next? Parents and kids feel the pressure to stay on the best team, with the best trainer, and the best coach to continue to progress in their sport.

At what age should a child or teen begin to specialize in a sport? Should kids go the route of gymnastics and figure skating and focus exclusively at an early age or should specialization be held off until high school or college when bodies and minds begin to fully form and develop?

An excellent article on the Steve Nash Basketball Blog addresses these questions and more.

Sports-Kids

Having been in the military, I had the benefit of having my children participate in school systems and sports programs up and down th
e Eastern seaboard. School systems and sports programs are not all the same. The culture within these communities created by principals, athletic directors, teachers, coaches, athletes and parents were a direct result of their collective focus and values.

As a psychologist, what I have found interesting is that the value system of sports and athletics tends to mirror one another. Within one community, children are not cut from a sports team – all children up to 9th grade may be able to try out and play on any team without getting cut. In the same community, children may not receive letter grades – or “competitive grades” – until the 8th grade.

Elsewhere, however, I’ve seen children cut from teams and competing for spots as early as 1st grade, when they also begin receiving competitive letter grades.

As with many things, the trick is in finding the right balance. Children in 1st grade cognitively can’t keep score and focus on the tasks of what they need to do on the field. What does a “D” in reading really mean to a first grader? A summary letter grade is an abstract concept that doesn’t teach very young children that they need to read more to improve their proficiency. The same applies to sports. An older child can understand the causes and consequences of a low letter grade, be it in academics or sports. But is waiting until 9th grade to be cut from a team too long to teach the lesson that life is competitive?

Another factor to consider are that traumatic brain injuries (concussions) will interrupt an athlete’s season and training. The type of community a child is living in and the focus of the coach, parents, athletic trainers, administrators, and other adults working, training and living with these young athletes can affect treatment outcomes in case of a concussion. Is your community one that is fostering hyper-competition that is focused on the top one percent or does it focus on age-appropriate health and well-being of all its children and how they all can benefit from athletic competition?

White Sox’s Konerko Felt Helpless & Depressed After Concussion

Last month, Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko suffered a concussion after being struck in the right temple by Kansas City Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson. After a gradual return to play, which included working out a little more than a week after the concussion, Konerko is now back on the team in full force.

What’s refreshing about Konerko, aside from the fact he took his concussion seriously enough to stay out of the game until he healed, is his honesty about the alarming effects of concussion.

In a video interview with Comcast Sportsnet, Konerko described feeling helpless, depressed, unmotivated and lethargic immediately after his brain injury.

“You just feel like a different human being. You just feel like out of the world. It’s just a weird feeling,” said Konerko, who took the ImPACT test after his injury to help diagnose the concussion. He described his emotional state not feeling like himself. “You almost feel, you don’t care about anything.” Konerko also said it hurt for several days just to shift his eyes.

In the video below (will open in a different page), Konerko provides an incredible glimpse into the physiological and psychological symptoms of brain injury.

The one part we take exception to is Konerko’s account [beginning at 1:16] of being blindsided by the actual impact which allowed for a “better chance of getting rattled and the brain moving.” The fact is we know that nothing, not even anticipating a blow, can prevent the brain from moving inside the skull.