Early Sports Specialization
Background, Current Recommendations, Alternatives, and What to do as a Coach for a Specialized Athlete by Mackenzie Garlick
[Mackenzie Garlick is a Senior at UNC getting her BA in Exercise and Sport Science with a Fitness Professional Concentration and a Minor in Cognitive Science. She is a Certified Personal Trainer through NASM and is taking part in the Athletic Lab Coaching Mentorship program.]
As youth sports increase in the United States and throughout the world, there has also been an increase in early sports specialization. This has some potential benefits, but it also can bring about some issues in the developing athlete. The background of early sports specialization will be further discussed, as well as its possible drawbacks, and ways to train an already specialized athlete.
What is Early Sports Specialization?
The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine defines Early Sports Specialization as 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 sports and free play (1). Early Sports Specialization, also referred to as ESS, has been increasing over the years due to the idea that it will give a competitive edge by attaining mastery of skills earlier than the non-specialized competition (1).
Parents have been found to influence young athletes’ sports initiation, but coaches are more likely to influence training and specialization. Specialization has been suspected to increase in the high school level (2). There is also evidence of ESS due to the increased number of year-round travel leagues for young players in a variety of sports as well as the increase in young Olympic athletes. (2). Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour” rule that was originally proposed for musicians but has been applied to those in athletics and other types of activities (2). This idea, when applied to athletics, theorizes that a high number of practice and early specialization sports during childhood would lead to elite athlete status. There is limited research that supports this concept in multiple sports.
What are some issues that could arise from Early Sports Specialization?
Some of the literature has found that a lack of diverse activities in children can lead to overuse injuries, physiological fatigue, and burnout (1). Overuse injuries often relate to musculoskeletal and physiologic immaturity. Since the body is not fully developed, there is an increased injury with repeated use (2). Due to the movements of some sports, some normal biomechanics and kinematics of the body can be altered. For example, baseball pitchers’ rotator cuff and hockey players’ hips have shown evidence of alterations due to the movement patterns of their respective sports (2). Higher training volumes have a direct relationship with a higher number of overuse injuries. The most common overuse injury is a stress fracture, which can be misdiagnosed or ignored entirely due to other physiological factors such as growing pains. Stress fractures can occur at any location on the body where there are increased loads. Lower body stress fractures are much more common than upper body stress fractures (2).
ESS is a risk factor for burnout and can lower lifelong sports participation. Burnout is defined as physical and emotional exhaustion from the mental and physical demands of an athlete’s sport (3). Burnout can lead to injury, depression, decreased performance, and in some cases drop out from the athlete’s sport.
When is the best time to specialize, based on the sport?
Numerous studies show that elite athletes specialize in their late adolescence (1). Except for highly technical sports or sports with a lower peak performance age, there is no strong evidence that supports that ESS is necessary for success. Some studies suggest that early specialization is helpful in highly technical sports (2). Early specialization sports are typically individual and highly technical. Highly technical sports would include figure skating, gymnastics, dance, tennis, and swimming. Early specialization is also more likely to occur in early entry sports. In early entry sports, peak elite performance occurs at a younger age, so early specialization approaches are more accepted compared to middle and late entry sports. These could include gymnastics and figure skating. Middle-entry and late entry sports typically involve peak performance at an older age and specialization occurs in middle adolescence or possibly later (5). An example of a middle-entry sport would be tennis, and an example of a late entry sport would be endurance running.
Alternatives to Specialization: Sports Diversification
Sports diversification is defined as the participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete can develop their physical, social, and psychological skills (4). Early diversification provides different physical, cognitive, and social environments (1). Being involved in multiple sports can allow for more social interaction and motor development in the athlete. There is a potential crossover effect from playing multiple sports at once that will benefit the athlete by possibly developing physical and cognitive abilities faster.
A way to make sure that the athlete is becoming well-rounded in their athletic abilities is by placing them in what are called donor sports. Donor sports are defined as complementary sport activities that allow for a transfer of varied and specific movements across a wide range of practice environments (5). This supports performance functionality once an athlete decides to specialize. Certain skills that are considered critical to athletic development can be transferred from experience in other sports to build a holistic athlete (5). Futsal has been seen as a good donor sport for American football and other sports that require skills like scanning the field and ball manipulation (5). Futsal is a sport that has similarities to indoor soccer but is played on a hard court rather than a soft field.
Current Recommendations about ESS
There are many recommendations provided by governing bodies that can help determine when to initiate sport, specialize in a sport, and what type of training load the athlete should have. These recommendations come from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.
The NSCA recommends that before a child participates in organized sport, it is important for them to have fundamental motor skill development (1). Some of these fundamental skills include running, jumping, kicking, and throwing. It is also important that the child is wanting to learn the skills/sport that they are participating in. Children are more predisposed to injuries than adults are, but most people see that the benefits of sports participation outweigh the risk. It is important to keep in mind the factors that can cause injuries in young athletes. These factors that can influence overuse injuries can be either external or internal (1). External factors may include improper training methods and techniques, excessive pressure from parents or coaches, and inappropriate equipment. Some internal factors include a prior injury, poor conditioning, and growth.
It is recommended to delay sport specialization in a single sport for as long as possible (3). Participating in more than one sport supports general fitness and athleticism as well as reduces the risk of injury in youth athletes. It is also recommended that when athletes are participating in multiple sports, they are only participating in one sport per season (3). It is important to keep the total volume of organized sports participation at a conservative limit to help prevent injury. A general rule of thumb for training load is that an athlete should not participate in more hours of organized sport and other activity than their age (3). For example, a ten-year-old athlete should not participate for more than ten hours a week. Youth athletes should at least have two days off per week from organized sport and activity. Rest and recovery are very important to allow for physical and mental recovery and reduce injury risk.
What to do as a performance coach with an early specialized athlete?
As a performance coach, it is likely that you will come across an athlete that has specialized in their sport at a young age. As mentioned earlier, it is most common in those who participate in highly technical sports that have an early peak performance age. When an athlete has specialized earlier in their athletic career, it is recommended that they also engage in strength and conditioning training. Reasons that specialized athletes should engage in strength and conditioning training are that this form of training reduces sport-related injury risk and training monotony, creates fun and challenging training experiences, allows for the athlete to build authentic athlete-coach relationships, and make new friends from other sports (4). More benefits that the athlete will reap from strength and conditioning training include enhancing sport-specific performance and developing overall athleticism and motor skills different from their sport (4). Strength and conditioning training also promotes lifelong engagement in physical activity and improves their health and psychosocial wellbeing.
A priority for coaches is to promote long-term athletic development and foster talent development (4). Coaches should target the development of movements that are not inherent in the athlete’s sport. It is important to take the athlete's training schedule into account and make sure that the aims of the session are not compromised (4). For example, for a tennis player, a sprint and velocity training session may have better results if it is placed before the tennis session. Overall training load should be considered. It is also important that movements and muscles that the athlete’s sport does not consider are targeted during the training sessions (4). Performance coaches should work with technical coaches and the parents of the athletes to build up relationships as well as to provide a holistic training program that is athlete-centered.
In an athlete’s athletic career, there will come a time that the athlete will specialize in their primary sport. ESS has three components: participation in eight or more months out of the year, focusing on a single sport, and the athlete is younger than the age of 13. Overall, the research has found that unless the sport is highly technical, specialization before later adolescence is not necessary. Since youth athletes are not simply miniature adults, they cannot be treated as such during their training.
Sports diversification is considered one of the optimal pathways an athlete could take before specializing in their primary sport. It is best to try and pick donor sports, which are meant to complement each other by having varying movement patterns. For example, if an athlete is a football player, it may be beneficial to them to play baseball in the off-season.
When coaching specialized athletes, there are some considerations to account for while programming and training these athletes. It is important that in programming that muscles and movements not prominent in their sport. It is also important that the volume of the athletes’ training, both technical and performance training, does not exceed the number of years that they are. It is important to keep youth athletes healthy and happy in their athletic development by building relationships and preventing overuse injury.