How many sports did you play growing up? Did you specialize in a sport—that is, focus on one sport year-round? If so, at what age did you start to specialize? Were you pressured by a coach, parent, or someone else to specialize in that sport?
Now, think about the culture of sport for today’s young athlete. Is it different than your experience playing sports growing up? I’d hazard a guess that your sport culture as a young athlete looks a lot different than today’s—which is perhaps best illustrated by sharing my own experience as a youth athlete in the 1980s.
My Youth Sports Story
I grew up in rural North Dakota (kind of an oxymoron, since there really isn’t a metropolitan area in the state!). My hometown had a population of about 2000 and my graduating class had 35 students. There were 135 students in the high school, and the entire school district—K through 12—was housed in one interconnected building, everybody in one building. One lunchroom. Two gymnasiums—the “big” gym and the “old” gym (before the addition of the new wing to accommodate the “population growth” during the coal boom in western ND of the late 1970s).
I lived literally across the street from the school and its adjacent sports complex, and was definitely considered a “gym rat” and the town “jock.” I vividly recall playing touch football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer. My dad would say that my favorite sport “changed with the season.”
Growing up, I eventually gravitated towards baseball—being 5’11” didn’t bode well for a career in basketball, after all! As a 13-year-old, I played on Little League, Babe Ruth, and American Legion teams. The summer days of 1983 were spent at the ballpark: morning (Little League), afternoon (Babe Ruth), and night (American Legion). Luckily, my house was right across the street (and marked by foul balls)—always a hop, skip, and jump away for a snack.
As an eighth grader, I started at third base for the high school team (only 1 team, no JV or freshman team—remember, 135 kids in entire high school!). I now had a dream of playing major league baseball. This also started my nearly year-round commitment to baseball; however, I continued to play all three sports and added track & field for a few years in high school. (Side note and true story: the school was so small that I would sometimes play the first game of the baseball doubleheader, walk cross the parking lot and throw javelin and high jump before returning for game 2.)
My year-round commitment was certainly not as intense as current schedules and routines for youth athletes. I basically would play long toss at lunch break and then hit tees in a side room of the house after basketball practice.
So, I was definitely a multi-sport athlete though high school before beginning my collegiate baseball career. But, would you say I specialized? And did I do so at an early age?
More recently, as a director of a sports performance center, a youth and high school baseball coach, and a sport parent, I’ve experienced the contemporary “epidemic” of sports specialization, including the pressures of “if he doesn’t play fall ball” or “if he doesn’t play spring hockey” or “if he doesn’t go to pitching lessons.”
Sports specialization is certainly a hot topic and there are several other blogs on this matter. I do not want to replicate them; however, I want to add to the conversation by contributing some perspective and also some considerations for parents, coaches and sport leaders.
What is Early Sports Specialization?
Why would a young athlete want to specialize in one sport while excluding others? And more importantly, have we ever asked them? They (the young athlete) may respond with “because my mom/dad/coach/Uncle Billy who played in college told me if I want to be a college/pro/Olympic athlete, then I need to specialize. Plus, all the other good kids are doing it.”
A Brief History and Summary of the Research
As previously mentioned, sports specialization is currently a hot topic as shown by a quick PUBMED search of the published research or Google search for news stories and blogs. Interestingly, if we go back to my youth sports story above, there was actually a 1988 article in the Journal of Physical Education titled, “Specialization in high school sports—The pros and cons.” The concerns expressed in this paper have continued and been researched in the past decade. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness first published their position statement on Intensive Training and Sports Specialization in Young Athletes, and another on “Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes in 2007.”
In the past five years, the attention on this topic has increased, with more published research to support the observations and anecdotes from the playing field and sports medicine clinics. Much of this has been captured in the updated position statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, both published in 2016.
Before moving onto solutions let’s first highlight what we know from the research on sports specialization:
Of the 60 million young athletes ages 6-18 years in the U.S., 27% participated in only 1 sport.
Sports specialization is probably related to select or travel leagues starting as young as 7 years of age. These leagues often are independent of school-sponsored programs and foster year-round single-sport participation. The bu$ine$$ of youth sports! These clubs are often aligned to a commercial business (e.g., Joe’s Baseball Academy).
Athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries and play sports longer than those who specialize before puberty.
No evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports.
Early multisport participation will not deter young athletes from long-term competitive athletic success.
71% of U.S. Olympians from 2000-12 played multiple sports as youth. Average # of sports for Olympians by age:
Age U-10: 3.11
Age 10-14: 2.99
Age 15-18: 2.20
Age 19-22: 1.27
Age 22 & Older: 1.31
Average # of sports by all kids 6-12 in 2016: 1.81
A Few Caveats
OK, there is plenty of evidence to support multi-sport participation during childhood and into early adolescence. However, I am not here to tell you that I totally agree. For the next few paragraphs, just be open-minded and hear me out. I am certainly not anti- multi-sport participation, I just think there are a few caveats that we should consider.
First, let me tell you a hypothetical situation. Let’s go through a typical weekly calendar for the hypothetical young athlete. Perhaps it starts at 6AM with a weight lifting session for football with little time to eat breakfast before the school day (8AM-3PM). After school (3:30-5:30PM), there is basketball practice which may include intense conditioning. Then into the car and through the fast food drive-thru on the way to a private quarterback lesson or personal training session or another club team practice (6:30-7:30PM)—which may include another strength & conditioning component. And then, 1-2 hours of homework (8-10PM) before bedtime (11PM).
This might sound crazy, but the reality is: this is probably NOT hypothetical and is actually playing out somewhere right now.
Now, here’s a real story—let me introduce you to my son. Beginning at age 12, Kaleb participated as a “multi-sport” athlete in baseball and hockey. Both were basically year-round. The “competitive” hockey season ran from mid-August through March followed by a short spring league in April-May and then “voluntary” camps and clinics in June and July. Baseball season ran March through July, followed by Fall ball from August through October. Practice for the summer “select travel” team started in December, along with winter hitting league.
Oh yeah, and I forgot about the skating coach and hitting coach!
Do you see where I am going with the “fallacy” of the multi-sport athlete? My main point here is that just because an athlete is participating in more than one sport on a yearly basis does not mean we are out of the woods in terms of healthy athletic development. I have spoken on podcasts about this issue a few times and emphatically state that we should be concerned with the overall training load or training volume imposed on the young athlete—along with recovery—and not just specialization in a single sport.
Indeed, a recent paper in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes who participated in their primary sport for more hours per week than their age (i.e., a 13-year-old athlete who participated in his or her primary sport for more than 13 hours/week) were more likely to report an injury of any type in the previous year. Now, this does not address the specific issue of the overall training volume of a two-sport athlete, but we know from the literature that overall training volume is a significant predictor of injury. It should also be noted that not only training volume (hours/week) but also intensity needs to be considered as well. In addition, the hectic schedule probably deters adequate sleep.
Another point that should be made is that of overcompetition and undertraining. Despite our knowledge base in proper training and conditioning, many young athletes are not properly trained in fundamental movement skills and resistance training, which have been shown to reduce the likelihood of injury. There is an emphasis on games or competitions and much of the practice session is devoted to X’s and O’s. Coaches may tell you that they do a dynamic warm-up and have a strength and conditioning program, but it is typically carried out haphazardly.
Finally, there are examples of sports specialization that promote healthy athletic development. I had the pleasure of visiting the Dominican Republic for a baseball trip in the summer of 2012. I saw youngsters playing baseball for countless hours every day. I assume this pattern occurs throughout the entire year—essentially sports specialization at an early age. However, much of the activity was unstructured free play at the discretion of the youngster, not an adult imposing a structured adult training model upon them.
So, would I allow my son or daughter to specialize in sport at an early age? First, what do we mean by early age? I certainly would want them to follow best practices in LTAD and get a breadth of experiences in movement skills, games, and sports until at least age 8-12—just like they receive a breadth of educational subjects in the school curriculum. I would also let the young person be part of decision-making process and if he/she chooses to specialize in a sport that they really enjoyed—to make sure there was balance in training and competition along with periods of active rest and socialization with friends and the ability to pursue other non-sport interests (arts, reading, etc.) while maintaining solid academics.
And remember: training can include non-sport specific activities that are fun and develop all fundamental movement skills and athletic competencies. Balance, health, and holistic development of the young student-athlete are key.
Solutions: Where To Next?
The evidence is pretty clear and most, if not all, of us in this echo chamber are in agreement—young athletes should participate in a number of sports throughout childhood and early adolescence. In turn, many people involved in youth sports, but not all, have been educated on it. So, what can we do?
I like to think of LTAD and its related issues as being similar to smoking and public health. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General for Health released a report demonstrating that smoking CAUSES lung cancer. Yet it took 40 years to change policies such as banning smoking in enclosed public places. The evidence is becoming clear on early sports specialization, but will still take time for changes to occur.
Of course, we should continue to educate parents, sport leaders, and sport coaches about the detriments of early sport specialization (and excessive training volumes). We can post and share information on websites and social media and hand out information at parent meetings, but the reality is that it becomes difficult as a parent. The fear that your child might be “falling behind” is real—believe me, I lived it as a parent, even knowing the research. Part of it is the political and social pressures of not participating year-round and how this is viewed by the coaches—often times volunteers who are not well-read in this area—who ultimately select the team. Educating them or trying to have a conversation about the topic may actually become threatening to them. Ego is the enemy! And ignorance is bliss!
Ultimately, this comes down to behavior change either at the individual (parent, coach, or administrator), organizational, or societal level. And behavior change is very, very difficult and complex. If it were easy, several health and social ills would be solved. For example, most of us know eating fast food regularly and too much sitting is bad for our health, yet chronic diseases related to these behaviors continue to soar.
Also embedded in this behavior change is the importance of communication between all stakeholders—the parent, coaches, and sport leaders. First things first: this is about the young, developing student-athlete. Check your ego and agenda at the door. The stakeholders need to think in an athlete-centered approach that embodies LTAD and work together to find win-win solutions on programming, training volume, and more.
Again, all this is easier said than done! But, if nothing is said…nothing can be done.
Besides the links to the position statements, here are some excellent infographics from YLM Sports Science related to sports specialization. Great for sharing with parents, coaches and sport leaders in your community!
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