Early Specialization in Sport
Athletes who specialize in one sport prior to age 14 will likely not succeed in their sport. Early specialization has been strongly pursued in North America for as long as we’ve been doing sports. YouTube videos of young phenoms performing skills at an extremely advanced level, seeming to defy every law of science would make it seem that early specialization in one sport would reap that kind of success. It’s natural for coaches, clubs and parents to desire success for our kids. However, if we had a crystal ball and could see into the future of what happens to the young athlete who specializes early and/or is highly successful at a young age, we would see some discouraging images.
Athletes who specialize early develop high rates of overuse or wear and tear injuries because they are only using certain muscle groups as opposed to all the muscle groups which would be engaged by playing a variety of sport or by a physical literacy program. In 1998, an eminent sport surgeon, Dr. James R. Andrews performed shoulder surgery on 5 patients who were in high school or younger. In 2008 he did the operation on 28 athletes of the same age group. That’s a 460% increase. Many such injuries end an athlete’s career prematurely.
Early specialization limits the physical literacy of the athlete because they are not learning all of the body movements. Poor physical literacy limits the development over the long term, just like not learning grammar and spelling in English limits a university student or a young person embarking on a new career. Poor physical literacy causes the athlete to stall in their improvement starting around age 12.
Athlete burnout is caused by lack of enjoyment or stress. The young athlete who specializes typically describes their sport as “a job”, something they have to do, and the enjoyment element is lost. When the joy of playing is lost, performance is not inspired but forced. At a younger age they will find enjoyment because they will be improving at a rapid rate and getting a lot of attention for their success. But athletes, both recreational AND competitive are quitting sports at 50% per year starting at age 12. The reasons cited all boil down to the enjoyment level. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, one of earliest developers of modern sports, once said, “Early specialization in sports limits the athletes’ ability to understand the value of the journey and robs them of the pleasure that healthy athletic training can provide.”
Stephen Hart, former Canadian national soccer coach, observed that the players making the U13, U15 and U17 provincial and national teams are not the same ones that are making the Senior teams. Those that specialize and peak too early do not last in the sport. Of the 2000 players from the Canadian U17 national womens teams from 2000 to 2010, only 5 are currently playing on the Senior national team.
Although there are phenoms such as Sidney Crosby and Lionel Messi , they only represent less than 1% of the population. It also must be noted that there are 3 sports that require early specialization due to the demanding nature which requires the body to be very tiny for high rotational velocity; figure skating, gymnastics and diving. The skills for these sports are best learned in pre-pubescent years.
Experience allows us to see into the crystal ball and the future is brighter for athletes that are playing multiple sports and being trained in physical literacy programs.