Early specializing just doesn’t add up

KPA Elite Parent 576
For this latest in what will be a series of articles presented by our partners from KPA Elite Performance Services of Danville, some surprising facts about athletes who specialize in one sport too young and stop participating in multiple sports are revealed. The research, in fact, is strongly in favor of those who want to be multi-sport athletes for as long as possible. For the intro to KPA’s Elite Parenting Program and the first article in this series, CLICK HERE.

Note: For more on the KPA Elite Parent program, CLICK HERE. For more on KPA and its elite performance services, CLICK HERE.

By Tyson Qualls
KPA Elite Associate

Early specialization is an increasingly dangerous trend that has negatively impacted youth sport across the country. The concept of encouraging a young athlete to pick one sport at a young age and focus entirely on that sport, without having other opportunities, is a misguided practice.

It has been shown that teenagers learn and grow from being in malleable environments that allow for varied interactions and experiences. If, as a parent, your desire is for your child to continue to play a specific sport through increasing levels, then it is important to digest the information presented here.

Take a moment to consider what it takes to be a pro athlete. The various physical, technical, tactical, lifestyle and mental skills necessary to succeed must be nurtured and supported in order to reach their maximum potential. The cultivating of these skills is rarely, if ever, done through forced one-dimensional athletes.

In fact, if you take the time to think of a favorite athlete, it is highly likely that they played multiple sports throughout their high school and collegiate careers. Instantly the names of Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson come to mind. These professional athletes were able to utilize skills from various sports to improve their ability in their chosen career.

One of the greatest tight ends in football history, Tony Gonzalez, is another great example of an athlete who did not specialize too early in one sport. In fact, he continued to excel in basketball into his college years at Cal. Photo: Tom Hauck/Student Sports.

One of the greatest tight ends in football history, Tony Gonzalez, is another great example of an athlete who did not specialize too early in one sport. In fact, he continued to excel in basketball many years into his college career at Cal. Photo: Tom Hauck/Student Sports.


Multiple scientific studies regarding various topics in youth sport continue to drive home the anti-early specialization narrative. The Journal of Sports Sciences published a study in 2012 that compared multi-sport athletes with single-sport athletes. Their data indicated that: “young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport.”

As an elite parent the choice seems simple. Do you want your son or daughter to enjoy their sport well into their 20s and possibly the rest of their life? Or would you prefer that they peak at 13 and experience the all too common impact of burnout? The harsh truth can sometimes be difficult to hear, but in this case the facts speak for themselves.

Dr. James Andrews, a world-renowned surgeon who has operated on countless professional athletes, also does not support the concept of early specialization. In a recent interview he responded to the recent emphasis on young single-sport athletes.

“We recommend you don’t specialize in a sport until you’re a senior in high school. That’s what a number of our professional athletes who have been very successful have followed. That’s what Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford did. He was a quarterback at Oklahoma and plays for the Rams now. He didn’t specialize in football until his senior year in high school.”

Another study conducted by the American Sports Medicine Institute determined that pitchers in baseball who do not take the appropriate time to rest in the offseason or play a different sport are 36 times more likely to be injured. This dramatic increase in injury likely applies to more than just baseball. For the same reason that Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann incorporated ballet into his routine, so should young athletes find a sport other than their main focus to play for part of the year. The simple fact of the matter is that having multiple athletic interests creates more opportunities to improve the various skills necessary to succeed at a particular sport.

Another concept that has led youth athletes down the wrong path is the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. This theory is centered upon the concept that with 10,000 hours of effort you can achieve greatness in your sport. This is simply not true.

There are countless cases of athletes who have trained far beyond this point and were still not able to achieve their professional goals. For example, in an article by the Washington Post writer Christie Aschwanden, a specific circumstance was related to Swedish athelete Stefan Holm. He devoted most of his life, countless hours, to the high jump, only to lose the gold medal to an athlete who had taken up the sport 18 months prior. The key to Elite Parenting is being able to identify ways to draw out your child’s maximum potential, not drive them away from their sport by believing that hours spent is directly proportional to success.

These seven facts from a study titled Long-Term Athlete Development by Istvan Balyi, Richard Way and Colin Higgs outline an appropriate specialization plan for children.

1. Early diversification (trying multiple sports) does not hinder elite participation in sports in which peak performance is reached after maturation.
2. Early diversification is linked to a longer sport career and has positive implications for long-term sport involvement.
3. Early diversification results in participation in a range of contexts that promote positive youth development.
4. A lot of deliberate play during the sampling years promotes intrinsic (motivation from within or “right stuff” motivation) regulation and builds a solid foundation of intrinsic motivation through involvement in enjoyable activities.
5. A lot of deliberate play during the multi-sport years establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences that young athletes can ultimately bring to their principal sports of interest.
6. Around the end of primary school (about age 13), children should have the opportunity either to specialize in their favorite sport or to continue in sport at a recreational level.
7. Late adolescents (around age 16) have developed the physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills needed for investing their efforts into highly specialized training in one sport.
Parenting is a career for life and not a simple task. Your child’s needs change constantly. Knowing the facts rather than the myths about early specialization is vital for any parent. The KPA Elite Parent Program can be invaluable in helping you know more on this area and many other sport parenting issues.

Maximizing your child’s performance potential demands a unique set of skills and a mind-set of lifelong learning, courage and focus. Are you willing to develop this skillset and mindset to meet your child’s challenges?

Find us on the web at http://kpaelite.com/eliteparent
or
Alternatively call 925 389 2373 or email Hazel@kpaelite.com for details of upcoming KPA Elite Parent Programs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

BW-Keith-Power-300-150x150Keith Power is the CEO and Founder of KPA Elite Performance, which provides elite performance solutions for individuals, teams and organizations. Keith has competed, coached, led and consulted at the very highest level in sport and business, as well as working for 25 years in elite youth sport as a sports coach, coach educator, parent coach and was previously High Performance Director at Cal. He is also a Professor of Sport Psychology at JFK University.

A former international track and field athlete and Great Britain bobsledder, he was Head Coach for the British Bobsled Team at two Olympic Games and still holds the distinction of being the youngest person ever to be head coach at any Olympic Games. He is married to Hazel, has two girls aged 11 and 18 who enjoy playing sport and he lives in Danville.


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