Early Sport Specialization is Ruining our Athletes
Today, many sports “academies” and coaches are pushing young athletes to specializing in one sport earlier and earlier. Sure, athletes who specialize in one sport may be more polished than their multi-sport counterparts, but is that really a benefit? Youths that participate in multiple sports often reap the benefits from their varied athletic interests.
According to trackingfootball.com, 224 of the 256 players chosen in the 2015 NFL draft played multiple sports at the high school varsity level. That same website discovered that 94 players played three sports at that same level. What does that tell us? If early specialization supposedly increases skill development then why are multi-sport athletes the ones reaching the highest levels of competition?
Early specialization supporters point to the development of sport specific skills necessary to succeed. However, the extreme focus and repetition that occurs because of specialization can lead to more trouble than you would expect. Eric Cressey, a leading voice in athletic development, argues that sport specialization leads to diminished athletic development.
The idea is that by training for one sport the athlete will only develop the athleticism and movement patterns necessary for that sport. Therefore, the young athlete will miss out on movements found in other sports, placing a ceiling on their athletic potential.
Cressey also argues that early sport specialization can also lead to a higher injury rate. Take baseball for example; early specialization may lead to a higher occurrence of injury through overuse and muscular imbalances. Thousands and thousands of swings and/or pitches lead to serious overuse injuries especially for the youth. Movements as powerful and violent as the swing and pitch take a serious toll on the body especially because they are generally done unilaterally. Proper strength programs will help fight imbalances but many people mistakenly do not see the benefit of strength training in youth athletes.
The overuse injuries are a leading cause in the growing Tommy John epidemic that is sweeping the baseball landscape. An astounding 60% of Tommy John surgery patients were between the ages of 15 and 19! That shouldn’t happen. A big reason why it is happening is the early specialization of youth baseball players and the crazy wear and tear that comes with year-round competition. Dr. David Grier, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, claims that the increase is because of overuse. He writes,
“It used to be that athletic teens played different sports depending on the season… That rotation protected young athletes from injuries caused by repetitively stressing any single body part of their body year-round.”
Finally, Cressey cites burnout is an argument against early sports specialization. Being around all levels of baseball for over two decades, I can attest to the burnout rates of early specialized baseball players. These players quit because of burn out at a much higher rate than their multi-sport counterparts. After a while, the luster fades and the sport begins to feel more like a chore or job and that desire that burned so bright becomes extinguished.
Vanderbilt University’s baseball coach, Tim Corbin, recently led his team to their first national championship in 2014. He admitted that he is reluctant to recruit “baseball-only guys”; rather, looked to bring in multi-sport athletes from states that had a change in seasons. These players were much more likely to take a break from baseball and play other sports, which saved their arms and bodies. Urban Meyer, head coach for the Ohio State football team, shares the same ideology. About a year and a half ago, an image circulated online that showed Coach Meyer’s recruiting class. Out of the 47 recruits that year, a whopping 42 of them were multi-sport athletes in high school. In a 2013 study, 88% of collegiate athletes played more than one sport in high school. The examples go on and on, but why?
Playing multiple sports leads to superior motor and athletic development. A young athlete that plays more than one sport develops stronger proprioception through learning and practicing the movement patters in each sport. Each sport places an athlete in unique movement patterns and action sequences. An athlete that participates in more than one sport is exposed to a wider range of movement, thus improving their athletic capabilities. Playing multiple sports also exposes youth athletes to different personalities, whether it be coaches, teammates or officials. These athletes will be subject to different coaching styles and clubhouse atmospheres. Increased exposure to people of different backgrounds can help strengthen an athlete’s coachability and clubhouse value. They learn how to be a better teammate. They learn that their value to the team is more than just in-game performance. It is the sum of your hard work, clubhouse persona, performance and much, much more.
The NCAA’s most recent survey of its athletes supports the multi-sport approach. The survey found that “a number of them (especially men) wish they had spent more time sampling other sports when they were young”. Even the athletes that are elite enough to play at the collegiate level openly regret specializing in one sport at an early age. There are way too many well-known benefits of playing multiple sports as a youth to limit your child (or yourself) to just one. Let the kids be kids and play! They will be better teammates. They will be better athletes. Hey, maybe one day they will be recruited to play for Urban Meyer!