Battling Youth Sport Specialization

There are arguments daily on social media about sport specialization with our youth athletes.  I wholeheartedly believe in letting kids play many sports but let’s look at both sides. It’s really a discussion of the chicken vs. the egg.  On one hand the best athletes genetically will have the best opportunities to play multiple sports.  If you’re a really good athlete, you can play a lot of sports at a high level and be successful in all of them.  If you the best athlete at all times as a youth, later on it appears that you playing all these sports it made you the best athlete.

However, on the flip side we see kids that aren’t blessed with athleticism almost have to specialize.  Why? When they aren’t good at everything they won’t get the opportunity to play other sports.  They are often forced to specialize in one area.  How many kids that aren’t good at a sport get the opportunity to play the sport in Junior High or High School?  They don’t, because they often get cut or left behind. Select coaches these days make priorities for the kids that are on their team all year again leaving others that may want to try other sports behind….unless you’re the best athlete, then you’re probably ok. I still don’t agree with specialization at an early age but some athletes often have no choice.

Early specialization results in many issues in the developing athlete. Three longitudinal studies from three separate countries show some of the problems associated with early specialization.

Early specialization produces early results from the frequency at which athletes are performing their skill. On the surface, this alone makes coaches and athletes excited about the future and creates a system of even more one-directional training, but it often comes at a cost to later development. Athletes that specialize early often hit a “ceiling” of development, while those that continue to build a larger foundation often produce well into their adult years.

So how do we know what early specialization is? It is generally defined as:

  • Playing a single sport 8+ months out of the year.
  • More organized sport hours per week than their age.
  • Multiple leagues in the same sport at the same time.

This isn’t to say baseball players shouldn’t play baseball. They absolutely should and must to develop the skill necessary for the sport. It’s saying that other movement skills and abilities shouldn’t be dismissed and forgotten about. Training should be multilateral and not unidirectional. Specialization should happen later in adolescence after a large base of movement skills has been developed. According to Professor Tudor Bompa, often referred to as the father of sports periodization, baseball athletes shouldn’t begin specialization until the ages of 15-16, with highest performances occurring between the ages of 22 and 28.

John O’Sullivan’s TEDx Talk is a great piece to watch on the topic of specialization. John also wrote an Ebook on the topic titled Is It Wise to Specialize? that I highly recommend as well.

Sport specialization isn’t going away so adjusting to it will be necessary. So what steps can we take to help our youth athletes avoid the downfalls of injuries and lack of development due to sport specialization?

  1. Expose young athletes to a variety of movement skills during their warm-up time. A baseball coach isn’t going to not practice baseball, but they can utilize the warm-up time to build new movement skills, and challenge neuroplasticity in young athletes. Challenge them with movement patterns that the athletes don’t get on a continual basis in their sport.
  2. Expose young athletes to as much free play as possible. Creating games that emphasize a robust environment of coordination, agility, decision making, balance, etc.  The end of the warm-up turns into a great time for athletes to play a game like tag, or sharks and minnows.
  3. Slow cook the approach both in the weight room and on the field. Emphasize developing movement patterns before absolute outputs.

Top youth sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas have these general age guidelines for athletes trying to achieve elite status.

  • Prior to age 12: 80% of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports other than the main sport
  • Age 13-15: 50-50 split between other sports and the main sport
  • Age 16+: At this point specialization becomes important but 20% of the time should be spent in free play and other sports.

Taking a slow-cooked approach results in true long-term development. It creates a stable foundation for all other skills to build upon. Continue to build foundational movements and watch results flourish down the road.