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New Research Notches Another Strike Against Early Sport Specialization

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The debate over whether young athletes should play multiple sports or focus on one to develop their skills – often framed around the best way to earn a college scholarship – has been going on for quite a while now.

Up until a few years ago it wasn’t much of a debate. Nearly all kids played multiple sports, and each sport had a season. These days, with nearly all club/travel sports becoming year-round commitments, it gets tougher and tougher to be a multi-sport athlete.

Some new research published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), a scientific, peer-reviewed publication, weighs in on the topic. Since reading the actual article would require you to purchase it, here’s a press release that provides a pretty good summary.

The article defines early sports specialization (ESS) as “the intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (under the age of 12) for more than eight months per year, with a focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sport and free play.” Does that sound like anyone you know?

The article goes on to point out that the “lack of diversified activity in youth leads to increased risk of injury and burnout.” No surprise there. Young bodies are still developing, and the constant repetition and wear-and-tear in the same ways can certainly take a toll.

As I like to explain, any sort of repetitive motion, done enough, can cause issues. Just look at carpal tunnel syndrome.

Clicking a mouse is hardly intense activity, yet 3-6% of adults in the U.S. acquire it at some point, often leading to surgery that costs thousands of dollars. Now imagine a much more robust series of activities repeated over and over on a body that hasn’t fully developed.

But what about the pursuit of excellence (and more specifically college scholarship opportunities)? The authors of the study state that ESS “may not be necessary for elite athletic achievement, but rather early diversification of sports leads to superior results.” They also say those who diversify show more enjoyment of sports in general, have a lower frequency of dropout, and have “fewer signs of chronic stress, higher levels of motivation and a gradual independence.”

I know I’ve seen the value of diversification in the athletes I’ve worked with over the years. For example, I love working with gymnasts, tumblers and cheerleaders. They have tremendous strength, especially in their core, as well as excellent body awareness that enables them to learn new athletic skills quickly. Skaters also tend to fall into this category.

Basketball, soccer, volleyball and lacrosse players are usually in great shape and very quick. No need to do a lot of conditioning or speed and agility work with them – someone else is already doing that heavy lifting for you. They tend to make excellent middle infielders and pitchers.

Those are just a few examples of how the skills and athleticism gained in other sports translate to fastpitch softball. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Of course, at some point athletes do have to start specializing to some degree if they’re going to pursue higher level play. By the time they reach high school age the time demands for club/travel players make maintaining a competitive level in one sport tough, much less two or three. Although it can still be done if the adults are adults about it and willing to accept that a multi-sport athlete may not make it to every practice and team activity.

By that age, players may also self-select out of multiple sports. They may recognize that they’re better at one than another and decided to focus on it, or may lose interest in some sports they liked in the past. Of course, a few will want to continue playing more than one, at which point they will likely have to choose which to do at a high level and which to do at more of a recreational level.

At the younger ages, however, participating in different sports should not only be allowed but encouraged. Parents and coaches should work together to build a schedule that’s best for the young athlete as well as the team – including total time off from everything now and then so the kid can be a kid.

Coaches can also take heart from the fact that many of the basic skills from other sports will transfer to softball, helping players become better than they would have been otherwise.

Now, if your child isn’t interested in other sports it doesn’t make sense to force him or her into them just for the sake of cross-training. But most kids aren’t that narrowly focused.

As a society we need to dial back our obsession with youth sports (and college scholarships for 10 year olds) and instead focus on helping our kids establish a solid foundation and love for athletics that will carry them through their lives. The evidence increasingly shows it’s best for them in both the short and long terms.

 

One sport or multiple sports?

First of all, thanks to Jan Pauly and Jennie Hughes Janda for sharing this story via Facebook. It’s definitely worth a read.

The story is on the nagging question of our times in youth sports – should young athletes play multiple sports if they want to be successful, or should they instead focus on one sport? The prevailing attitude (especially among coaches) these days seem to be specialization is not only better but necessary.

Yet when you look at what’s going on today, that may not be the right answer. First, you have the rise in injuries among youth athletes over the last few years. While there will always be some injuries in sports, many of them are now being attributed either to overuse or over-training.

Constantly doing the same thing over and over, especially in high-level competitive situations, places a lot of wear and tear on the body. The evidence suggests that the lack of variety is a major contributing factor to the injury situation. Athletes who play different sports use different muscles and muscle groups, and stress them in different ways, which seems to contribute to better overall development.

A second factor is what happens when you look at some of the top athletes of our time. The article mentions Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and several others. All top performers, and all multi-sport athletes through high school. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were multi-sport athletes in the pros, although they are exceptions.

Then there’s the crossover of skills between various sports. Things you learn in one can be applied in another. Look at mixed martial arts practitioners. They incorporate training from a wide variety of styles to help make themselves less predictable and therefore gain an edge. If this sort of synthesis works there, why wouldn’t it work in other sports?

The reality is we may be doing our young athletes a disservice by not giving them the opportunity to play multiple sports due to the crazy level of commitment now being demanded by all the individual sports or teams. Especially when you consider, as the NCAA ads say, most of those athletes will be going pro in something other than sports.

That’s not to say they have to abandon the sport entirely. But there’s no need to treat the off-season as though it’s mid-season. Youth athletes can work on their own, taking lessons and/or practicing skills when they can while participating in other activities. They don’t need to spend two hours a day, four days a week, in a team setting. And they (and their parents) should definitely set aside some time to shut down from the sport completely – for a month, six weeks or longer – to give their bodies time to heal, their brains time to refresh, and their spirits the burning desire that often flickers by the end of a long season.

Perhaps it’s time to start dialing back the expectations and give our youth players the opportunity to become well-rounded. It just might do more to up their games than expecting the high-level, 12-month commitment many are demanding now.

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