Early sport specialization is not a monster under the bed anymore
Early sport specialization is practically baked-in to the youth sport environment now, so maybe we should try to live with it.
Early sport specialization — committing to one sport at a young age — used to be a trend that lived only on the dark side of the youth sport arena. Doom sayers warned of the misfortune youngsters would face if they focused on only one sport too early: Overuse injuries, burnout, and social isolation among others.
Some disadvantages, overuse injuries for example, had evidence to back such claims but for the most part the problems associated with early specialization were scolds from those who would benefit if athletes participated in multiple activities. High school sports used to benefit from the now almost mythical 3-sport athlete who played football, basketball, and baseball throughout the school year. Now, high school football is a year round activity in many places, with coaches requiring a singular commitment from players. The multi-sport, interscholastic athlete has all but disappeared.
Sport clubs are no different. In addition to coaches encouraging full-time participation, club’s depend on year-round athletes to stay financially fit.
However, the most powerful influence on early specialization is a young athlete’s family. Once parents find a sport their child enjoys it’s difficult to convince them to try others, especially if only to serve some abstract idea on proper development. And the young athlete probably wouldn’t be too enthusiastic for a change either.
And although single-sport specialization is increasing, multi-sport participation is not really disappearing; for many youngsters it’s just taking on a more informal look. Young gymnasts, for example, may be involved in year-round training but still have time for summer swimming or baseball teams or short-season scholastic sports. The youngster might describe himself as a gymnast while still participating in other activities.
Concern over early specialization is based on old assumptions about youth sport programs
The nature of youth sport has changed over the last two decades. Many sports have become professionalized in terms of program offerings and coaching expertise. While this may not be good for youth programs overall, it is one way that the disadvantages of early specialization can be mitigated.
Nowadays many coaches have a more comprehensive understanding of what ‘training’ actually means in youth sports. Besides metabolic conditioning and skills instruction, youth coaches direct programs for mobility, strength, flexibility, nutrition, and limited psychological aspects of sport activity. They understand the movement chains involved in sport skills, and, most importantly, they know how to deliver this knowledge in age-appropriate ways. They are professional coaches who have molded youth sport activities into commercial enterprises. (There are downsides to this but that’s a different article.)
In other words, youth sport coaches are able to build athleticism in well designed programs; thus, minimizing some objections to early specialization.
The article below discusses sports in terms of early and late specialization requirements. Some activities do require early specialization because peak performance occurs at earlier ages than in late specialization activities. The article was written to dispel the notion that sport success required early specialization across the board.
This article was originally published in September 2015:
When should athletes specialize in a single sport?
An increasing number of young athletes are specializing in a single sport leading to a general lack of foundational preparation and lack of physical literacy. Some coaches and many parents believe that if a young child begins learning the skills and training for a particular sport — and only that sport — then the child will have a much better chance at reaching elite levels of performance later on. They believe that participating in multiple sports only interferes with this laser-like focus.
The single sport idea is based on conventional wisdom but child development experts say that early specialization is, at best, ineffective for developing elite athletes and may be harmful to sport performance as a child gets older. Multiple sport participation, on the other hand, provides a foundation of physical literacy that will enhance later sport performance.
Very few sports require early specialization in order to achieve elite status. Those that do are skill intensive and have the performance goal of perfecting the coordination and form of a skill. Sports that are in this category include gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. What also makes these sports unique is that their primary skill set consists of fundamental movement skills, something every athlete, regardless of their sport, should have as part of their physical education and training background.
The peak performance window for early specialization activities opens earlier than for other sports. This helps explain why world-class female gymnasts are frequently in their early to mid-teens during their peak performance period while runners, for example, are usually in their mid-20s when they reach their peak. Male gymnasts peak a little later because strength, a larger component in men's events than in women's, is trained most effectively after the adolescent growth spurt.
Other sports don't have this early need for perfecting skills and are classified as late specialization activities. Not only is there no pressing need for specialization at young ages in these sports, but doing so prevents mastering the full set of fundamental movement skills. Mastery of these skills eventually manifests itself with a richness and depth of physical ability that athletes who specialize too early are never able to develop.
While early specialization activities center on acquiring and perfecting skills, the training priorities of late specialization sports are stamina, strength, and speed; components whose most effective training periods occur after puberty. Focusing on these components earlier doesn't produce the results that many expect and may lead to overuse injuries, early burnout, and premature retirement from training and competition.
Single sport specialization should occur at about the age of 16 for boys and 15 for girls. This coincides with a period of accelerated adaptation for strength following the adolescent growth spurt. Prior to this, athletes should be mastering fundamental movement skills, learning various sport skills, and participating in a variety of sport and movement activities. Smart coaches know that athlete development takes time. Trying to rush things through early specialization is not in the best interest of the athlete.