Don’t Fall Into the Early Sport Specialization Trap

 In sports performance, Uncategorized

As a young athlete growing up I played a lot of sports. I think a lot of people in my generation or older can identify with that statement. In the fall you played football, volleyball or soccer, in the winter you played basketball or maybe wrestled or swam, in the spring it was baseball/softball season, track season. In the summer you played whatever- some baseball, games outside, and were thankful that your neighbor had a trampoline! As the seasons of the year changed, the sport changed with it.

As a kid growing up I remember my parents putting me in every sport, I wrestled one winter (I hated it), I did gymnastics for two to three years, and I played all the classics. I can also remember crying before my first day of baseball because I had to wear pants and not shorts (I was big into shorts for a couple years there). For the most part if you asked me what my favorite sport was, I would say, “Whatever I am playing now.” That’s the way it was supposed to be.

As I grew older, I started liking one sport more than the other (baseball was my favorite by age 10 until I was 14 or so), but I continued to play three or more sports through my senior year of high school. Only when I was a sophomore did I decide to not play some of my earlier sports (leaving basketball and baseball) but picking up track and field and weightlifting full time. I remained a three sport athlete until I went to college.

Wil Fleming

Wil Fleming- forcebloomington.com

It’s interesting to note that if you asked 10 year old me what I would do later in life I would have said, “I want to be a baseball player”, and I would have played it year round if my parents had let me, but by my sophomore year of high school I was done with baseball. I might be getting ahead of myself but maybe, just maybe, even though the 10 year old loves his/her sport, you might want to keep him/her in other sports until a little bit older.

From my perspective, today’s young athlete is much different. Three sports or even two sports is not the norm any longer. This is the era of specialization, and I don’t agree with it. 

To Specialize or not

When I use the term “specialize” I am specifically referring to early specialization- the practice of choosing a single sport before the age of 16. For most sports this has been shown to be a poor choice; one that will even hinder an athletes’ development later in their sporting career. While there are exceptions, gymnastics and figure skating come to mind (highly acrobatic sports), most all other sports don’t require or even reward early specialization. Want some proof?

The image below is one of the recruits that have gone on to play for Urban Meyer, Coach of THE Ohio State University football team. It is a graphic representation of the types of athletes that his team recruits. While it may have been simpler for the illustrator to just write “THE BEST ATHLETES” rather than this, it makes a pretty clear point. He prefers or ends up recruiting more multi sport athletes than not. 

Don't Fall Into The Early Sport Specialization Trap

Don’t Fall Into The Early Sport Specialization Trap- Source: http://changingthegameproject.com/the-perils-of-single-sport-participation/

Here’s some more evidence against specialization.

A study by the United States Olympic Committee recently surveyed more than 300 US Olympians from 2000-2012, and asked them about their involvement in sports. Here is what they found as an average number of sports that these individuals played:

Age U10 – 3.11

Age 10-14 – 2.99

Age 15-18 – 2.2

Age 19-22 – 1.27

Age 22-older – 1.31

The implication in this sense is pretty clear: Up to age 14 most Olympians played three or more sports. Up until age 18 these athletes played two sports or more! The 12 year old baseball specialist is going against the trend of the greatest athletes in the world.

A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Sports Sciences, multi sport male athletes at age 12 were found to have more explosive strength, better coordination, and better speed than those that played a single sport. (Source: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2011.642808)

Here are 5 more research backed points about early specialization:

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.
  2. A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
  5. Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.

(Sources:

1 and 4: https://dorutodpt4twd.cloudfront.net/content/uploads/files/content/docs/pubs/Project-play-september-2013-roundtable-resarch-brief.pdf 

2: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2012/12/19/bjsports-2012-092005.short 

3: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/4/287.short 

5: https://chrisbutlersportspt.com/2014/05/02/is-early-sport-specialization-a-risk-factor-for-anterior-knee-pain-in-female-athletes/

and http://changingthegameproject.com/is-it-wise-to-specialize/ THIS IS AN AMAZING ARTICLE)

Anecdotally, I have spoken to dozens of college coaches that say they would rather have a multi-sport high school athlete to recruit because once they come to college and finally specialize they will have a better opportunity to blossom.

On the side OF specialization are whom exactly?

With all this data it should be a small group, but why do I see more and more athletes that are specialists at a young age? It’s those that have a vested interest in athletes specializing; travel coaches trying to fill a roster of paying individuals, or high school coaches wanting to win. I don’t fault those individuals for wanting athletes to play, or even for a pay to play model, but I do fault them if they do so at the expense of a young athletes’ opportunity to play other sports. There is just too much evidence against early specialization.

With that pressure, and the extremely high pay off if a young athlete does “make it,” you can see why parents might allow it or encourage it, and athletes might think it’s the right path. It begs the question though, what is the price that is paid if an athlete does specialize early and doesn’t make it? A much more likely scenario is that we are setting up young athletes for a much higher likelihood for overuse injuries, burnout, and quitting sport entirely.

Now What?

The solution to this problem is Long Term Athletic Development, a model we follow at Force. LTAD or multilateral development, should expose young athletes to as many different experiences, movements and skills as possible for as long as possible.

Learn a lot of skills, thereby increasing our physical literacy. Then practice many sports, play many sports (practicing more than competing by a large margin), learn even more skills, train holistically (movement, not muscular or sports based), and let the athlete grow for as long as possible. Then at age 16-18 the athlete can specialize and flourish.

Think of it as the schooling system. We go to school from age 5-18, during that time we learn the basics of math, reading, writing, then we add some science, and social studies. Then we increase the difficulty a bit and add things like biology, chemistry, algebra, calculus even, and literature. Then at the age of 18, we go off to college and we declare a major, a subject about which we want to become a specialist. 

Imagine if we suggested to a 4th grader that it was time to declare their major, and all of their time would be spent learning biology, or calculus? How would that young person turn out? I would bet we would say, “Wait, they won’t be well rounded” or “I’m afraid they will burnout.”

As a parent of my own son, the choice is really clear. Allow my son to play as many sports as he can for as long as he can. Encourage him to play as much as possible FREELY, and learn LOTS of skills. (For a list of things parents can do to make sure they are following LTAD for their kids, go HERE.) I am going to do my best to provide the richest and most fun environment possible for my son to remain active for life.

I had a great experience playing sports growing up, but I know some people didn’t. When I look back on why I loved playing sports and some friends didn’t, it wasn’t because I was more athletic, or stronger, or faster – in a lot of cases I wasn’t. I had a better experience because my parents didn’t let me specialize. My identity was not wrapped into one sport until I chose that sport in college.

As the owner of a gym, my role changes a bit. Despite the overwhelming evidence against early specialization, I am not the parent of every athlete in my facility. Nor am I every athlete himself. My job is not to get you to play more sports, but it is to ensure that the athlete has a well rounded movement ability. If they are specialists then the team at Force is going to provide a rich environment that can encourage the overall development of their athletic abilities in the absence of other sports. This means athletes at Force train movements and not muscles, train in multiple planes, move on their feet often, and engage in free play whenever possible.

If you share this opinion, and believe that sports specialization is not a good idea please share this article. To learn more about Force’s sport performance philosophy and training systems, check us out here or here.

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