Early sports specialization may not be the golden ticket

Only 37.4% of teens in U.S. participate in more than one sport.” Says Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (1). However, this might not be the smartest solution if the child dreams of becoming a professional athlete. Statistically speaking, early sports specialization has proven to be an unsuccessful way of reaching the elite level of sports. While there are a number of incredible athletes that show prowess in a single sport very early on, how does this translate into future athletic success? 

Early Sports Specialization Can Have More Negative Than Positive Effects

The truth is that the vast majority of professional athletes specialize in a specific sport relatively late.  This has put the theory of early sports specialization under debate. As a matter of fact, specializing in one sport too early can reduce motor skill development and create a negative relationship towards sports and exercise (2). The scientific data behind athlete development supports the claim that you should specialize at the age of 15-16 to become a top-tier athlete (3, 4). An even more important factor to consider is making sure that the athlete is motivated to train and progress both physically and mentally. Striking a balance between sport-specific training and other physical activities could potentially pay off in the long run. 

sports specialization
Specializing early is not always best for the athlete’s progression

The overwhelming majority of research suggests that specializing in a single sport before puberty is more detrimental than helpful. It may even predispose you to physical, emotional and social problems. Being socially isolated can have detrimental effects on the athletes relationships, motivation and psyche. (3). You are more likely to succeed if you delay high training volumes and specialization. The later a child specializes in a sport, the more chance they will specialize in the right one. This means that the child will pick their favorite sport according to their skills and motivation – not their parents’, friends’ or coach’s. 

While it is understandable that youth coaches strive for success as a team, it creates a dangerous combination between youth development and competitiveness. Supporting the interest of the child is better for both the athletic development as well as mental health and motivation. 

Early sampling or early specialization?

A well-known Canadian sports scientist, Jean Côté, introduced a three-stage model for young athletes. This includes sampling as many sports as possible until the age of 12 and then focusing on a few main sports until the age of 15. Specializing in a single sport should occur as late as 16 years of age. To put it simply, specialization means a high volume of deliberate practice with a focus on performance whereas early sampling describes deliberate play in a variety of sports. (4). On top of this, studies have suggested that specializing after puberty reduces risks of injuries as well as having a higher chance of athletic success (3, 4). Athletes in their later adolescence already have the physical, cognitive, social, emotional and motor skills needed to make the decision of what to specialize in (3).

Many athletes have shown skills from a variety of sports played in their youth that have crossed over to their main sport later on (3). Just in case you missed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 500th goal (or a highlight reel of his earlier goals) – you can definitely see his sports background of Taekwondo from his youth. This is only one of many examples of elite athletes with multi-sport backgrounds.  

”An even more important factor to consider is making sure that the athlete is motivated to train and progress both physically and mentally.”

sports specialization
Repetitive movements and one-dimensional training can cause overuse injuries.

Late specialization is not at war against the 10,000 hour rule

Ericsson’s rule of 10,000 hours of practice has been touted as one of the best theories for athletes, or anyone for that matter, to reach elite level. The downside of this is that the actual quote is often misused and misinterpreted in the media. This research was done with selecting advanced musicians and chess players and has little statistical significance on most sports. (3, 4) Some professional athletes can achieve elite status even with 10,00 hours of deliberate play in all sports combined with only 3000 hours of sport-specific practice (3). 

There are exceptions to this rule as well. Sports like figure skating and gymnastics benefit from earlier specialization because athletes usually reach their peak before full physical maturation (4). Furthermore, while you must have heard how Tiger Woods or the Williams’ sisters have trained in their own sports since childhood – it ignores the thousands of young athletes that followed the same method and failed. This often happened with over-ambitious parents that drove their children to focus on one sport early on – often with lasting damage to their children’s esteem. 

”Playing a variety of sports can develop your skillset, avoid burnout, prevent overuse injuries and introduce you to new people and perspectives” 

Early promise needs the right kind of support

There are numerous stories of young athletes, who show early promise in a sport which they will ultimately want to pursue. Thus, they want to spend all of their time and energy to practice the skills needed for that specific sport. The problem with this is that especially working with adolescents, the physical differences and relative age effect can be enormous at times. Being drafted into a pre-team could mean life or death to a young athlete’s psyche. If this is done too early, some of the most skilled players may not have a chance to compete at the level they need to progress to the next stage. If a young athlete specializes and has to religiously train every day, is there room for anything else? Do they have enough free time or a chance to pursue education if a professional career does not materialize?

The danger here is that a tough training regime may have negative effects on the athlete’s physical and mental health as well as intrinsic motivation. One result of this is that intense training often leads to overuse injuries. This, on the other hand, can take away the athlete’s valuable training time. (3)

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Versatility in training can keep athletes motivated.

Early sports specialization causes overuse injuries

Early specialization has a strong connection to overuse injuries in younger athletes. This effect is significantly increased when the sport takes away time from age-appropriate play and focuses on competition and developing technical skills from an early age. (5). In short, if you devote too much time on one sports at a young age you significantly increase the chance of suffering a debilitating injury. Additionally, if you specialize early and reach professional level you are still far more prone to injuries compared to athletes with multi-sport backgrounds. Year-round exposure to only one sport, especially ones with repetitive technical skills (like pitching a baseball or serving in tennis), had a higher probability of overuse injuries. (4)

Most injuries also occur during competition. Therefore, the longer a game lasts, the higher the probability of an injury. Competition and overscheduling, or having a rigorous competition schedule, also reflect on the amount of injuries in athletes. Another thing to consider is the psychological factor of playing day in day out. The athlete must be able to gain positive experiences through multiple sports and cope with the pressure on the elite level. Otherwise they’ll be at risk of burnout. (4)

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Athletes should focus on one sport at around 15-16 years of age.

A wider range of sports can reduce drop out risk later in life

According to a study by Joel S. Brenner, an associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, nearly 70% of children in the United States dropped out of organized sports by the age of 13 (3). The same study stated that constant training and focus on a single sport can become repetitive and joyless, which can result in lowered motivation and even burnout. In the worst case scenario the athlete can have long-term resentment towards the sport and does not want to have an active and healthy lifestyle. However, numerous athletes have shown skills from a variety of sports played in their youth that have crossed over to their main sport later on (3).

”Athletes are less likely to drop out if they participate in informal games outside of organized sports”

Early diversification minimizes potential drop outs while providing positive experiences, relationships, leadership skills and intrinsic motivation towards sports. (3). If the benefits of multi-sports backgrounds needs even further proof, two separate studies by Jayanthi et al. stated that earlier specialization resulted in heightened risk of injuries even as an adult. This was especially prevalent in athletes that participated in more hours of organized sports in a week. (6, 7).  Furthermore, athletes are less likely to drop out if they participate in informal games outside of organized sports (3).

On top of that, they even had shorter athletic careers when compared to specializing later on. (3). Both Jayanthi and Côté revealed early diversification and late specializing to be the most effective road towards elite status. (3,  46)

It seems as the friendly neighborhood rivalry and ”pick-up” games are slowly dying in the wake of organized training. Which one is better, spending three hours commuting, warming up and actually training versus the same amount of actual play time with your local kids? What we see now is organized sports driven by the ambitions of coaches and parents, often at the expense of what is good for the young athletes themselves. Sadly, this phenomenon has become the norm for growing athletes. 

The US Olympic committee has also created an American Development Model in 2014 that gives guidelines for athletic development (8).

Team USA’s development model for athletes (2014)

Discussion

The emphasis should be on early diversification instead of early specialization. Having more variety in sports will help the athlete grow physically, cognitively and socially in an accepting and motivating environment. These factors would have far-reaching effects on the athlete’s motivation and general well-being that would last a whole lot longer than just the time actually spent with the sport. That is why I urge next-generation coaches and athlete trainers to take this information into consideration when working with young athletes. In many cases early specialization may hinder athletic development and lead to one-dimensional ability instead of versatility.

The more diversity in exercise you do – the more diverse your motor skills are. These skills form a valuable basis for further skill-development on any sport you wish to pursue. It also helps you maintain healthy social relationships and therefore prevent burnout. If the athlete is dead-set on specializing early, their progress should be closely monitored in order to prevent injuries and lack of motivation.

As stated above, a well-rounded athlete is way more likely to succeed in their own sport if they keep practicing other sports as well. That is why we should concentrate on a wide variety of skills in order to keep the athlete motivated to hone their skills to be better in any sport possible. Continuous one-dimensional can also lead to overuse injuries, which are more and more common nowadays. The best way to bring out the positive effects of a versatile sports background is to participate in multiple sports as long as possible and take some time off your main one. This does not mean that you should simply spend nine months training in one sport and then take a break – you also need some balance during competitive season.

Aside from organized sports, growing athletes should have the opportunity to train on their own time. The practice time and lack of pressure can really pay off in the long run in both skill and strong motivation. The most important thing is to help the players find a spark – an inner motivation to strive to do their best both on and off the field.

Sources:

  1. Lee, B.Y. 2018 How To Get The Most Out Of Sports? Don’t Stick To Just One. Forbes. Published on 28.1.2018. Cited on 19.9.2018
  2. Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D. & Micheli, L.J. 2015. Sport Specialization, Part II. Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Sports? American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Vol. 8 (1), p. 65-73.
  3. Brenner, J.S. 2016. COUNCIL ON SPORTS MEDICINE AND FITNESS. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics, 138 (3), p. 2016-2148. 
  4. Kraus, E. 2017. Sports Specialization: Striking the balance between performance and injury prevention. Bridge Athletic blog. Jun. 29, 2017. Cited on 19.9.2018
  5. Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D. & Micheli, L.J. 2015. Sport Specialization, Part I. Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Vol. 7 (5), p. 437-442. 
  6. Jayanthi NA, LaBella CR, Fischer D, et al. 2015. Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case control study. American Journal of Sports Medicine. (43) p. 794–801. 
  7. Jayanthi N, Dechert A, Durazo R. 2011. Training and specialization risks in junior elite tennis players. Journal of Medical Science in Tennis. (16) p. 14–20.
  8. Team USA. American Development Model. Cited on 19.9.2018

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