Early sport specialization is getting a lot of press.
But if the phenomenon is new to you, it is essentially the trend for young athletes to focus on just one sport year round. The idea here is that more hours spent training that activity will increase the chances of success. Early specialization was in part ignited by the popularization of the “10,000 hour rule”, which credited the accumulation of training hours to expertise in a variety of domains. Helped along by stories of Tiger Woods practicing his putt while still in diapers, and Andre Agassi returning serves in his backyard after school, the growing trend over the last few decades has been for young athletes to get a jump on their hourly accumulation by going all-in with a sport at a very young age.
But it turns out this isn’t such great advice.
Research is starting to show--with alarming consistency--that athletes who specialize early are actually less likely to ascend to the elite levels of sport. The trend across multiple sports from swimming, to track, and even team sports seems to be that elite athletes have a diverse sport background, and make the shift to focus in on a single sport in their late teens.
But despite the attention this topic is getting in both academic research and popular media, there’s still a resistance to this approach from parents and young athletes.
For some, the decision to put their 10-year-old athlete in a single sport year round is made out of fear. I’ve had numerous conversations with parents about the culture of youth sport, and the perpetuation of the idea that their kid will simply get left behind if they don’t participate in off-season showcase tournaments, specialized sport camps, and personal coaching.
To many, something just doesn't feel right about all of it. But in the nepotistic world of youth sports, they’re also fearful of their child being stigmatized and labelled as someone who's not willing to do what it takes to be "elite." So they go with the flow and avoid rocking the boat.
Another reason is just straight-up ignorance. In a consensus statement from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine11, researchers noted that a major roadblock in stopping this trend towards specialization is despite the acknowledgement from parents and coaches that although kids are specializing too early, that their children are immune to the risks.
Fear and ignorance. Always a winning combination.
As a coach, I believe that another explanation as to why this shift isn’t being made, is that people just don’t understand how a diverse sport background can improve the chances of success in a single sport.
I can't fault parents. The idea that joining a soccer team will help a hockey player just isn’t common sense. But in the absence of knowledge, decisions get made based on emotion and intuition. People will go with what makes sense on the surface, which is why early specialization has caught on like wildfire.
In my opinion, it’s critical that people go beyond just knowing that late specialization works, to understanding why it works.
The skill of learning
Great athletes are highly adaptable. You can throw task at them and they quickly figure out how to be successful with it. The ability for an athlete to pick up on new skills means while others are still trying to figure out the nuances of the movement, they’re already engaging in high quality practice, which in turn contributes to faster development and better performance.
If I have to work with an athlete for 4 weeks on how to hang clean, they're going to get less out of training than an athlete that can pick it up in a couple of sessions.
The jury is still out on how much of this ability to is innate versus developed, but my hunch is that a diverse sport background is a contributor towards an athlete’s ability to learn motor skills.
Variability of practice is a well-established principle of motor skill acquisition. What this essentially means is that practice is more productive if the environment and parameters are constantly changing.
For example, let’s say you wanted to improve your free throw ability in basketball. Common sense would say that you should do 100% of your practice on the free throw line, since that’s the most specific way to practice. But interestingly, this isn't the best way. A better strategy would be to practice some of your shots from the free throw line, some of your shots a little closer to the hoop, and some a bit farther away. Essentially, the more random and the more diverse, the better. It's what gives you a real feel for the skill. And although this type of practice would produce more errors and feel less productive, the increased difficulty requires more psychological engagement and connection with the movement--resulting in better performance when you step back up to the free throw line 18.
In my opinion, what research like this demonstrates is that the ability to learn, is in itself an ability that can be developed. Although there’s no research yet supporting this idea when it comes to how early sport history impacts the ability of athletes to learn novel motor skills later on in their career (and in other sports), I have to believe there’s a link.
In the gym, I can absolutely attest to the fact that athletes with a more-well rounded background simply pick up on drills and exercises quicker than those who specialize. The specialists seem rigid and stuck in their movements. They’re unable to make subtle changes in their movements, and just take much longer to “get” whatever it is I’m trying to teach them.
A foundation of skills
While the specialist may get more practice honing a narrow set of skills, the generalist is forced to develop a larger and more diverse palette of skills. This large foundation is crucial groundwork for developing more specialized skill sets later in an athlete’s career.
This is the major argument put forth by Jean Cote, a leader in the field of athlete development and a proponent of early sport sampling--which basically the opposite of early specialization and involves athletes playing lots of different sports at an early stage in their development.
The multiple abilities acquired through involvement in various sports during childhood will provide children with the foundational physical, personal, and mental skills required to specialize in one sport during adolescence. Sampling various sports allows children to experience different social interactions with peers and adults (i.e., coaches and parents) and reinforces the adaptation of emotional and self-regulating skills that can be positively invested in one sport in the future. -Jean Cote 5.
A 2012 study of 735 athletes backed this idea up by showing that athletes with a more diverse sport background grew up to be stronger, faster, and better coordinated that those who restricted themselves to a single sport7.
In the educational system, we begin by teaching children the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, and critical thinking. We do this because these are the foundational skills upon which more specialized abilities are built. I think the same approach should be taken with athletics. Young athletes need balance, variety, novelty, and a broad range of skills from which to draw on later.
But this approach requires patience and faith, which is a hard sell.
You can't get better from the bench
In addition to trends showing that early specialization may hinder long-term performance, there is also a growing body of evidence showing specialized athletes are more likely to get injured or burned out 3, 9, 11, 13.
By engaging in only one activity, the athlete relies heavily on a specific group of muscles and movement patterns. And without other activities to create balance, the potential for overuse injury becomes much higher.
Compounding this issue is the fact that young athletes’ bodies aren’t fully developed. The rapid growth of their bones and tendons in addition to lower levels of muscular strength result in a poor ability to withstand forces compared to an adult. Although it may seem like most kids have an endless supply of energy, making high volumes of training feel like an okay thing, the truth is their immature bodies put them at a very high risk for breakdown if there isn’t enough balance and rest in their schedule.
Although the higher potential for injury should itself be a deterrent to specialization, the secondary consequence to being sidelined means missed opportunity for training and development.
An athlete that has to sit out for a few weeks to rehab a worn out achilles or patellar tendon gets less opportunity to develop their skills. Over time, this could severely limit their long-term potential and cost the athlete heavily.
Understanding how a diverse sport background contributes to an athlete’s later success is important if we hope to start shifting the trend to specialize early. My feeling is that the conversation thus far has sort of a kumbaya, “make sure the kids are having fun” type attitude, which, speaking honestly, no one really wants to hear.
People want to get better.
So when you’ve got guys like Pete Carroll saying “The first question I ask about a kid is what other sports does he play?” or Steve Nash crediting soccer for making him a great basketball player, I think it’s time for parents and coaches to sit up and take notice that getting their athletes involved in multiple sports might be the best career decision they can make.
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2. Berthelot, Geoffroy, Stephane Len, Philippe Hellard, Muriel Tafflet, Marion Guillaume, Jean-Claude Vollmer, Bruno Gager, Laurent Quinquis, Andy Marc, and Jean-Francois Toussaint. "Exponential growth combined with exponential decline explains lifetime performance evolution in individual and human species." Age 34 (2012): 1001-009.
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