Another Case Against Early Specialization

David Sills V is a wide receiver for West Virginia University.  He’s having a solid season so far.  Basically the story (you can read about it here) goes that David was a exceptionally talented quarterback at the age of 10.  He blew people away with his skills in his early teens.  In the end, it didn’t work out for him as quarterback.   The good news is that now according to him, “I’m having so much fun now. The most fun I’ve ever had playing football.”  It’s a story with a happy ending.  It drew me in and I’m interested to see how his football career goes from here.  But, at the same time I can’t help but ask, how the hell did he get here?  Or perhaps more importantly why?

The ESPN article states that no one, including David’s own father knew he could run such great routes as a wide receiver, which is strange considering so many people were able to identify his unique quarterbacking skills at such a young age.  This leads me to believe that David didn’t play much center field on the local baseball team, cornerback defensively on his Pop Warner team, or point guard on the high school basketball team.  I see this as a giant red flag in David’s development as an athlete.  As a parent or a coach you should encourage your kids to develop other athletic skills, play multiple sports, and at least be aware that the kid can do some other athletic things.  Instead Sills was stuck in a bubble from an early age.  Some would call it one dimensional.  A one trick pony if you will.  Instead of developing one skill to a high level a better idea would be to develop many skills to lesser levels and when the time is right, as the kid gets older, then choose a more specific skill set to take to a high level.  This gives the athlete more tools in the toolbox or weapons in the arsenal.  Now he/she has options.  Luckily Sills was open to change at the age of 20 and coaches “discovered” he was a great athlete.

The next question is why did this happen?  Well, it’s the adults fault.  It was an adult who started ranking kids at such a young age.  It was an adult who started specialty training such a young “gifted” child.  It was an adult that offered a 13 year old a college scholarship.  Parents allowed him to accept the scholarship knowing that he had no idea what he was doing or what the future would bring.  It’s all of their faults this kid had a bumpy road which included being all over the news at age 13 and crazy high expectations.  It’s cute when a kid who is let’s say 11 years old tells his parents that he wants to be a cardiologist when he grows up because the human heart fascinates him.  However, I don’t think most parents would go all in making this child’s dream come true at the expense of other development.  Kids should be given opportunities and encouraged certainly, but they should also be able to figure this stuff out on their own to some degree and changing one’s mind should be totally acceptable at that age.

The moral of the story is that young kids should be encouraged to play multiple positions in multiple sports.  Although I realize times have changed, kids should making up games with their neighborhood friends or playing pick up games.  Hiring a position specific coach before high school is silly.  If you are coach accepting money as a specialist in one thing for such young kids then you are pretty silly too.  I do think coaches offering a more general approach to sport, movement, and team play have a chance at being beneficial for young kids.  In this case things have turned out to be positive for David Sills but I know there are plenty of kids out there in which the result is burnout, unhappiness, and/or rebellion.

  • Mike Baltren