February 23rd, 2021
Early Specialization in Youth Sports
In 1997 Tiger Woods drained the final putt of a record-setting performance at the Masters, millions of parents, coaches, and educators watched in awe. By age 21 he was the most formidable force in the sporting world. Either conscious or sub-conscious, these well-documented facts galvanized the early specialization movement. Best-selling books such as Outliers, The Talent Code, and Bounce are wonderful accounts of the grueling ascent to expertise. However, they might create as much trouble as inspiration. The message received by parents and coaches often places early specialization into one sport above the value of diverse movement. More importantly, it’s held high above “play.”
Tiger joined a list of young phenoms like Mozart and Bobby Fischer; people who got in their 10,000 hours at a remarkably young age. The message is loud and clear to many parents and sport coaches: start your kids young. However, I think the real lessons are distorted. When I think of starting young, the intent should always be developing the fundamentals that can apply to all branches of a discipline. For Mozart, that’s developing pitch and scales; for Bobby Fischer its reading people and learning strategies in Chess; for athletes, it’s the fundamental patterns of movement. It’s not about sending your kid to pitching camp at age 9. It is about playing football or soccer in the fall, basketball or wrestling in winter, and track or lacrosse in spring. It is about learning how to run, rotate, lunge, skip, and pivot. What can be developed is fundamental to athleticism: acceleration, deceleration, rotational power, read and react, etc. No one sport corners the market on these skills. Likewise, no one sport should dominate the lives of children or even young adults.
Before you send Suzy out to that summer camp, understand that collegiate coaches look as much for athleticism as anything else. They want their players to be athletes first and it is best developed by a wide range of sports. Early specialization can accomplish this but it carries the likely prices of burnout and overuse injuries.
It’s unfair to draw from a sample of one but we can look deeper into the early phenomenon and find more clues. Athletes like Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati and Ty Tryon (there are many more) all reached notoriety at a very young age, and subsequently slipped due to injury and burnout.
Research has clearly shown that the body will accomplish an assigned task with little regard to correct movement mechanics. So if a 12-year old is pitching 8 months a year, the task remains the same but the movements will change due to fatigue. This is the platform for developing an overuse injury. Statistics show these are on the rise. The same holds true for any posture specific to a single sport. It’s why swimmers have a hard time with good shoulder mechanics and tennis players struggle to hip hinge. It’s precisely why baseball and softball athletes should pick up a soccer ball.
Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with sending a child to soccer camp over the summer. Problems occur when a child plays the same sport year-round. There is no suggestion to drop the concept of hard work or “deliberate practice.” Simply put, a child’s 10,000 hours should be spent moving in all kinds of environments and being a part of different sport cultures; aka “playing.” What comes of this is a group of athletes who are: a) less likely to burn out; b) more capable of adapting to a new coaching style (an underrated piece of the puzzle); and c) less likely to be injured. These players will look like athletes and work in whatever sport they end up loving. So feel free to work on those 10,000 hours, but don’t drive by the playground on your way to Jimmy’s “elite” summer hockey league. Stop the car and let him go play.
— Text and Photos: Stan Skolfield, ATC, CSCS is the owner of Skolfield Sports Performance and has over 20 years of experience as a Certified Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is a leader in the fields of sports performance and athletic training with a concentration in youth sports. He has worked with athletes from 7 years old, up to the elite professional level. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook: Skolfield Sports Performance.