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    May 27, 2014

    The Detrimental Effects of Early Specialization

    http://changingthegameproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Multiple-sports-pic.jpgThe greatest difference between our children’s sporting experience and our own is the rise of year round, sport specific organizations that ask – even require – season after season of participation in order to stay in the player development pipeline. The pressure to have your child specialize in a single sport at a young age has never been stronger. http://changingthegameproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Multiple-sports-pic.jpg

    As a result, parents ask me all the time “When should my child specialize in one sport?”

    When I tell them what the science says to wait, many tell me “That’s not possible. If my child does not specialize early she will be left out, not make the travel or high school team, and have no chance of playing in college. You live in a fantasy world.” They tell me about coaches who have told them they need 10,000 hours of organized, structured practice, and their fear that other kids will be getting a leg up on theirs if they do not specialize. They are stuck in a downward spiral that is detrimental to their children, but feel helpless to change course.

    In the words of Kirk Anderson, Director of Coaching Education for the US Tennis Association:

    “Even if parents and coaches know and understand age-appropriate principles for children, I think they would be reluctant to accept them because they would fear their child would fall behind the kid in a more structured program that focuses on training, competition and deliberate practice.”

    Photo David StrickreduxThis fear has forced kids into sports that often are not of their own choosing, and in many cases compels them to remain in activities that are not enjoyable, not intrinsically motivating, nor are congruent with their actual athletic abilities. This path fails to consider many of the physical, emotional and social costs to children who only play a single sport.

    There is a different path. It is the one based in science, psychology and best practices of athletic development. It is one that serves the needs of children for a lifetime, reduces injuries and burnout, increases enjoyment and motivation, and produces better athletes. Sound appealing?

    It is the path of multiple sport participation and less structured play.

    But don’t take my word for it. Below are some eye popping facts and statistics that should make every parent think twice about early sport specialization in sports like football, soccer, baseball, hockey and basketball, where athletes peak in their 20′s. (sources at the end of the article).

    First, here are five research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your child:

    1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
    2. A study by OhioStateUniversity found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
    3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of LoyolaUniversity found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!
    4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment
    5. Early sport specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears (added May 2014)
    If that is not enough for you, here are six research based reasons for multi-sport participation:

    1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
    2. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
    3. Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
    4. 10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one, deliberate practice. That, he says, is wrong.
    5. Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researches found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment are incredibly important. These are termed deliberate play (as opposed to deliberate practice, which are activities motivated by the goal of performance enhancement and not enjoyment). Deliberate play increases motor skills, emotional ability, and creativity. Children allowed deliberate play also tend spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes in structured training with a coach.
    6. There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

    An additional thought is provided by top youth sports researchers Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas. They suggest that at no time should a young athlete participate year round in a single sport. While they recommend that athletes in sports whose competitors peak after age 20 need to accumulate around 10,000 hours of general sports participation, no more than half of that needs to be deliberate practice of their chosen sport. As a general rule they recommend the following age breakdown for athletes trying to achieve elite status in a specific sport:

    • Prior to age 12: 80% of time should be spent in deliberate play and in sports OTHER THAN the chosen sport!
    • Age 13-15: 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic pursuits.
    • Age 16+: Even when specialization becomes very important, 20% of training time should still be in the non-specialized sport and deliberate play.

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