Early Specialization in Young Athletes

DJ plays basketball and volleyball for her junior high. She also plays year-round basketball for a competitive AAU team and turned down an offer from a club volleyball team. Coaches at her future high school want her to play basketball, volleyball and track; well, more to the point, the basketball coaches want a basketball player, the volleyball coaches want a volleyball player and the track coaches want a hurdler or a middle distance runner. At a strong 5’10, and a relative novice to team sports, DJ exhibits college potential in these three sports, and likely others if she chose other sports, like a return to swimming or a leap into rowing.

Unfortunately, the high school world no longer celebrates three-sport athletes. Coaches want commitments, and that means out of season, not just in-season. Five months before her first day of high school, she plays and practices with the high school basketball team while also playing for her competitive AAU team. This is what her coaches want. As an eager to please, 4.0 GPA, student council member, DJ follows her coaches’ advice. However, this means 3-4 weekly two-hour practices and as many as five games every weekend, between the high school spring league and AAU Tournaments. This leaves little time for volleyball, extra shooting practice or anything else, really.

In previous generations, the basketball adage was: “Teams are made in the winter; players are made during the summer.” Increasingly, coaches abscond with the notion of allowing players to develop on their own. Instead, they force-feed games year-round, taking a small rest in August when summer leagues end and resuming for fall leagues when school starts. Players now play more games than ever, and have greater understanding of strategy and tactics (Alan G. Launder refers to this as “Games Sense” in Play Practice), but players’ overall technical ability is the same, or worse than in previous generations.

As Launder writes in Play Practice:

“Because of the power of the sports entertainment business [and college scholarships], many young people are easily encouraged to chase the ephemeral dream of a professional careerâÂ?¦this desperate drive to succeed is counterproductive for thousands of children. This is confirmed by the numbers of junior athletes who retire prematurely because of what has been termed ‘psychological tiredness,’ a direct result of the pressure to perform in competition before they are mature enough to cope with winning, far less losing. These young people are often lost forever to the sport in which they could have excelled,” (Launder, 173).

In DJ’s case, one cannot judge her best sport at thirteen years old. It is possible she could develop into a college basketball player, volleyball player, hurdler, rower, swimmer, etc. However, if she follows her coaches’ advice and specializes in only one sport next season as a freshman, she will have only one opportunity to develop and her greatest talents may never be realized.

Furthermore, early specialization is both unnecessary for sport development and potentially dangerous for young athletes.

“In 1985, a study by the Swedish Tennis Association suggested that early specialization is unnecessary for players to achieve high performance levels in tennis. Among other things, this study found that the players who were part of the Swedish tennis ‘miracle’ of the 1980s, including the great Bjorn Borg, were keenly active in a range of sports until the age of 14 and did not begin to specialize until about the age of 16,” (Launder, 174).

Playing multiple sports allows for multi-lateral development, increasing one’s exposure to and ability to perform the basic fundamentals of movement. For instance, playing volleyball and learning to jump straight in one plane to block the ball at the net is helpful to a basketball player who must defend and contest a shot without leaning forward to commit a foul; running the hurdles helps an athlete develop a strong leg drive, which can only help make one faster running up and down the basketball court; playing tennis increases one’s ability to move laterally and cover short distances and make quick stops rapidly.

Brian Grasso, one of the leaders in youth sports training, says, “In fact, between the ages of 6 – 14, athletes should be focused primarily on developing fundamental proficiency in as many athletic skills as possible. Running, jumping, throwing, lateral movement, spatial orientation – the list is long and endless. The fundamental components of ANY sport are based on movement ability and associated physical properties, such as summation of forces and neuromuscular sequencing. Athletes must progressively master the science of movement as children, (Grasso).

Playing multiple sports provides natural rest and recovery for young athletes. When I was young, I played soccer, basketball and baseball. Beyond teaching different skills and different movements in each sport, the break-up of the season provided different stimulus and allowed my body to recover. Soccer is an aerobic sport played on grass; basketball is an anaerobic sport played on a hardwood floor; baseball is an anaerobic sport played on dirt and grass. Had I played basketball year-round, the quick starts and stops on the hardwood floor would have taken a much greater toll on my body; as it was, the grass and the different requirements of soccer and baseball allowed my body to heal and get stronger for the next season. Without the rest and recovery, the body is at risk for an overuse injury. In the case of DJ, she is now out with a hip injury; her doctor said it was only a matter of time until something broke down from overuse.

Detroit Shock Athletic Trainer Laura Ramus writes: “Many youngsters train and compete on a year-round basis, often in a single sport. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that overuse injuries have become commonplace in children. A recent study found that 50% of injuries in children presenting to a sports medicine clinic were classified as overuse injuries, (Ramus).

Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics, advises that “youngsters should be discouraged from specializing in a single sport before adolescence to avoid physical and psychological damage. The risks range from ‘overuse’ injuries such as stress fractures to delayed menstruation, eating disorders, emotional stress and burnout.”

There is little evidence to contradict the verdict that early specialization-generally before the age of 16-is unnecessary and potentially harmful. The reality is most kids will never earn a college scholarship or play professionally, and thus should be encouraged to pursue a wide range of interests. Also, those who do earn scholarships and play professionally are athletically gifted and often do compete in multiple sports throughout high school. Unfortunately, many of those dedicating themselves to one sport in the hope of obtaining the college scholarship are being passed over for the more athletic player. In the Swedish study, “what was most significant was that many players who had been superior to the eventual elite while in the 12-14 age group had dropped out-been burned out-of the sport,” (Launder, 174).

When DJ’s mom asked my advice, I suggested playing three sports as a freshman: volleyball, basketball and track. She seems to favor basketball and playing volleyball and running the 300 hurdles will only help her basketball development, as her biggest weaknesses are gaining coordination and better footwork. After her freshman or sophomore years, then she can look at her options, her strengths, her goals, etc and decide whether to specialize in one sport or continue playing multiple sports. Either way, she’ll have great memories of playing on multiple teams with multiple teammates and she’ll likely develop better overall athletic skills which will make her a better athlete and enable her to go farther in her chosen sport.

As Grasso says, children are not miniature adults. Just because a training regimen works for a professional athletes does not mean it should be implemented with kids. Kids need to develop first and putting them in a pre-professional environment as adolescents is not the best means to promote development. Let kids play, allow kids to make their own decisions regarding sport involvement and then support their decisions. If they only like playing basketball and want to pursue hoops full-time, great; if they enjoy several sports, encourage them to pursue their interests and allow the development to happen accordingly.

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