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Sport Specialization – The Whole Truth

MattThe age at which an athlete should begin specializing in a single sport has been and currently is a hot topic in the United States. We hear all the time that sport specialization can lead to increased stress, overuse injuries, burnout, and lack of motivation. We know that there is plenty of research available that will confirm that sport specialization at early ages often results in the outcomes previously listed. This is a major concern with regards to our youth athletes and the state of sport. I am not here to discredit any of the proven research that shows sport specialization as a youth can have significant impact on the athlete and their future in the sport. What I would like to do is try to expand the close minded approach that this research brings with the hope that future research can expose the whole truth of the effects of sport specialization.

Let us first define the problem to where the research findings are stemming from. A culture has been created here in the United States that is one of a Must Win Attitude. Too often you find unqualified coaches who will push to win at any cost regardless of development. You also have parents who feel this is the most efficient way to get that lucrative college scholarship. Their child has to play in the biggest tournament, play like a professional, and when they don’t have success, blame/yell the official or coach. If their child isn’t specializing in sport early they feel the child will fall behind. This will lead to the parent forcing the child to participate year around which leads to quitting the sport. Kids are playing seasons with 60 to 100+ games on travel baseball squads. As stated, development is not at the forefront of concern so basic fundamentals are not taught with the necessary detail to ward off future problems. With unqualified coaches who also lack the basic knowledge of the body and recovery concepts, fatigue and poor technique setup the recipe for injuries. All you have to do is YouTube the little league world series and watch the poor technique and understand why Tommy John surgeries have increased especially in youth baseball participants. Many of these kids probably specialize in baseball only but have a focus dedicated to outcomes and not processes.

As research has been performed on one-sport athletes, much of this research happened in the 1980’s or 90’s. During this era of youth sports, professional coaches were few and far between. It was extremely uncommon to see a non-Dad coach working with the team. This person would have a 9 to 5 job and then coach the group. Many of these types of coaches were uneducated towards training protocol, lesson design, sport psychology, the developmental process, and how to create passion for participation within the athlete. Because of this, not only did single sport athletes have poor experiences but so did multi-sport athletes. Multi-sport athletes simply did not have a study to participate in. Single sport athletes have been the targets of these studies. This is the current process for Little League Baseball and most recreational sports even today.

In 2014, we see with a greater regularity educated, professional coaches working in the youth sport ranks. These coaches have a greater understanding of concepts dedicated to giving the single sport athlete the experience they want. Detailed planning has ensured the appropriate number of training sessions, rest, and games are a priority. Technical skill mastery has become the focus during training. Developing a passion for participation has become a priority as opposed to winning at all costs. Learning and development are written within the mission statement of most youth clubs. In many examples, the youth coach has a better background than the local high school or college coaching staff and creates a more professional environment for development. This is in drastic opposition to the way things happened within youth sports when much of the research was being performed on children that participated in previous decades.

It seems likely that children specializing in one sport could possibly have higher stress levels, increased overuse injuries, and be burned-out resulting in a dislike for the game. I don’t need the research to tell me this but it’s available for those who need it and for those who believe sport specialization has no place in youth athletics. What would happen if we adjusted how we trained athletes at the youth level and put a greater focus on the process and not the outcomes? Some factors within the process of development that would have an effect on youths specializing in one sport would be:

  • Focus directed towards the enjoyment aspect of the sport
  • Decrease the numbers of structured games
  • Provide feedback to players about development through game play
  • Increase non-structured play
  • Educate coaches on the role attention to detail has in biomechanical functions
  • Determine athlete fatigue levels and structure training sessions based upon this result
  • Organize activities (structured and unstructured) in a manner that would be developmentally appropriate in all areas (physical age, training age, size, skill, ability, day, week, month, year).

What if we were able to develop passion in our youth for a particular sport because we have created this new and better culture? Why deny a kid who is passionate about a sport the opportunity to play that sport as much as they want? With the right parameters, do I get bored, do I lack motivation, do I have injuries, do I dislike the game and feel burned-out? I say no however research has yet to be done on this idea in this decade. Would you deny a kid who loves to read the opportunity to read because they may get burned-out or lack motivation to read because they do it day in and day out? Again, I am going to say no to this.

You may also hear that playing multiple sports has sport crossover. I would completely agree with this idea but is it really an advantage to the athlete? What does soccer have differently than say lacrosse? What is the need for crossover when a majority of the skills are identical (sprinting, cutting, changing direction, decelerating, trunk rotation, lower body explosiveness) and there are very few differences such as eye hand and eye foot coordination. If the skills are virtually the same wouldn’t we see some of the similar issues associated with single sport specialization especially repetitive use injuries? If I love one sport, let’s say soccer, what does eye hand coordination do to help my soccer game? Sticking with soccer, let us look at how other countries around the globe handle this so called problem of sport specialization. Looking at the model found in Europe, sport specialization is it. There is nothing else. In South America, unstructured play occurs day in and day out. Are we seeing the same results in these areas as we are here in the United States?

To wrap up, are we looking at the whole truth to sport specialization or only what we want to hear because that Sport Specializationis what is being driven into our minds. Mike Boyle, world renown sport performance coach, uses the analogy of a broken door and how focusing on the wrong areas never solves the problem. If you have a door that doesn’t close all the way you can shave the door down and the door will work … for a while. Now if you fix the loose hinge, the door will never sag again and will always close properly. Fix the loose hinge which is essentially the education and ability of the coach and then you have the opportunity for youth athletes to become masters of their sport. Not simply pretty good at three sports but really good at one sport. What would happen if we opened up our minds a little and began to look at sport with a fine toothed comb as it pertains to sport specialization? Can we get to the root cause of the issues (stress, injuries, burnout, etc.) and not just put a Band-Aid on the problem and call it fixed?

If excellence and mastery is the idea, an educated coach can give the opportunity to a single sport athlete to shine. The environment that is created within the team or club that promotes the correct ideals will provide the necessary services that an individual that loves a sport can play it as often as they like. Loving and wanting to play a sport everyday is not a bad thing. Also, playing multiple sports is OK if that is what the child wants to do. When it is their decision and left up to them with advice provided by the parent or coach, increased fun is generally had by the participant. Restructure the youth sports culture towards an educated base and single sport and multi sport athletes have an improved experience.

I challenge you to sit back and watch coaches, and parents at any match, game or tournament and view how much pressure the participant is under to perform. If love for the game and learning take a back seat, it can be predicted that the athletes is not going to continue with the activity. These problems associated with single sport participation go back to the education of the coach.

Educate the coach who educates the parents who influence the athlete to want to be involved within a culture of learning and development. This fixes many problems associated with youth sports and would have a significant benefit for athletes that simply love to participate in one sport.

Thanks for reading the post and I look forward to your feedback!

Coach Matt

7 thoughts on “Sport Specialization – The Whole Truth

  1. I agree. Great post! As the mother of an age group swimmer, who started when she was 7 and is now 10 and is training very heavily (5-6 days/week for 2-3 hours at a time), I have this nagging concern in the back of my mind about how healthy it could be for her to spend almost all of her free time involved in a single sport. I have read enough and have been able to rationalize our specific situation to be fairly confident that it is OK for her to specialize. When she tried out at 7 and before I signed her up for the season, I told her that I didn’t want to sign her up for something that I was going to have to nag her to attend. From the very beginning, I can count on one hand the number of times she has voluntarily missed a practice and never, ever have I had to nag her to go. She LOVES it! She has made closer friends at the swim club than she has at school and she is very good at managing a very tight schedule as a result of participating. I have been looking for an article like this that paints the whole picture of the “sport specialization is bad” theory for quite some time. I thank you for digging a little deeper to validate what I already suspected was true! If the coach is qualified and the athlete loves going to practice, there is no problem.

    1. Chris,

      Thank you for following EducatedCoaches.com and we are glad that you enjoyed the article. Here at EducatedCoaches.com we feel that with educated coaches who create amazing experiences for their athletes, anything may be possible as it relates to sport specialization. I say may be possible because no research has actively sought to prove the theory discussed in this post. Hopefully in the near future research that looks at player experiences and how they relate to single and multiple sport athletes will be done confirming our theory. Our goal is to open the minds of coaches and get away from the ideology of “this is how it was done when I was playing.” Too often this is how coaches think and it negatively effects how they train athletes because they feel this is the only way it can be done. We truly believe that if an athlete is passionate about a sport and has goals directed toward becoming the best they can possibly become, then specializing in one sport (along with quality, educated coaches) is a great option to help attain their dreams. I hope that you will continue to follow our posts and if you know of anybody who may benefit from our information, we thank you in advance for sharing it with them. – Coach Matt

  2. Luca, Thanks for the reply. If you know of anybody who might enjoy this post or could benefit from it, please pass the link on. Our mission to educate starts with people like you willing to get better. Anything you can do to spread the knowledge would be awesome!

  3. Outstanding Post! All parents should read this as they are choosing a coach for their child to work with. Does the coach have the ability to adapt to what Science is telling us and keep the sport fun, or are they “old school” and need things to be done the same way ignoring new theory and technique. When a coach is willing to evolve and evaluate new theory and techniques, I have seen athletes who specialize at an early age be very successful and avoid injury and burnout.

    1. Aaron, You make some great points. Parents should be searching for a program and coach that focus on development and not which prestigious tournament they won. Coaches, parents, and athletes should always strive to enhance their knowledge and continue to grow. As soon a growth ceases, development will no longer occur.

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