Opinion: The Dark Side of Soccer Success

This week, the US men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup. Although it is the most popular sport in the world, soccer has to compete against football, baseball, basketball, and hockey here in the US, and the loss represents another hurdle to the development of the sport and its players on a national level.

When kids are growing up, going to sporting events and watching TV, they are constantly exposed to the big 4 sports and their athletes.There is a natural inclination for them to be drawn towards these sports, and not soccer.

Elsewhere in Europe and South America, soccer is not only the most popular sport, but heavily ingrained within the culture of those countries as well. The majority of youth athletes in these countries play soccer, and some even do so year-round from an incredibly young age in club programs specifically meant to train them for careers with a professional club or national teams. In these countries, you have the best athletes specializing in soccer from an early age, and they go on to have accomplished careers in the sport. In the US, the same exact thing happens in baseball and the rest of the big 4 sports.

I’d argue however that these athletes aren’t successful because they are specializing so early, but in spite of it. They are successful because of their sheer commitment to the sport and their countries’ devotion to it. All their best athletes opt for soccer because it is the only option.

The dark side to this though is that exclusively playing one sport early isn’t a good idea when it comes to a child’s development. While specializing will no doubt make kids good at the particular skills needed for that one sport, it will also place a limit on their athletic potential. They will miss out on different movements and skills found in other sports that will make them a better overall athlete. They will have less movement variability overall, and from a developmental standpoint this will put a ceiling on their potential.

Secondly there is a harsh psychological impact from playing one sport exclusively. It’s common to see kids who specialize early stop playing because they get sick and tired of competing and doing the same thing over and over again. In the sports psychology realm this is aptly-known as burnout, and it often times goes hand in hand with helicopter parents who harp on their kids and force them to keep playing.

Injury risk is the last reason early specialization is bad. Any activity done over and over again throughout months and years, without any deviation, will inevitably lead to overuse injuries. An obvious and harrowing example is the exponential increase in elbow injuries among youth baseball players. Last year, 60% of all Tommy John surgeries were done on baseball players between the ages of 15-19.

This is the dark side of incredible and exclusive devotion to one sport that people don’t see. Early sport specialization can produce world-class success in the sport of choice; but at a price to the athletes involved. Soccer simply isn’t America’s most successful sport because it isn’t its most popular. Other countries thrive because most of their talent pool is drawn to it, while the talent pool in the US is more spread out among different sports. In spite of early sports specialization, other countries are still able to field elite soccer teams due to the sheer number of players in the talent pool. More can be done to encourage lifelong participation and interest in physical activity, but early sports specialization won’t cut it.

by Dan Cerone