Single Sport Specialization

What does specialization mean? According to Baker, Cobley, and Fraser-Thomas (2009), early specialization means:

(1) Early start age in sport
(2) Early involvement in one sport (as opposed to participating in several sports)
(3) Early involvement in focused, high intensity training
(4) Early involvement in competitive sport

Why do we encourage specialization? This is a great question. Some believe that if a child does something for 10,000 hours they will become elite (thank you Malcolm Gladwell). Others fall into the trap of year round programs that cost thousands because they don’t what their child to fall behind. Still others want “little Johnny” to excel at the sport they didn’t (but could have given the opportunity).

I believe specialization at an early age is crazy. First let’s look at what the medical experts say. According to James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, and various other medical studies, specializing at an early age leads to the following:

(1) 50% of the overuse injuries in young athletes come from children that specialize
(2) Athletes that specialized early were 70%-93% more likely yo be injured than those children that played multiple sports
(3) Children that specialized early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to burnout, lack of enjoyment and stress.
(4) Early specialization leads to increased knew pain and increased risk of ACL tears.

If you listen to top tier coaches and elite athletes, the message is the same. Urban Meyer caused a stir when he outlined that 42 of his 47 recruits were multi-sport athletes and only 5 were football only. Other coaches like Pete Carroll and Virginia men’s lacrosse coach, Dom Starsia, ask first what “other sport” a recruit plays. Why– because those kids have shown to be the best college athletes for both coaches. The best quote I have seen is from Changing the Game Project:

To be an elite level player at a college or professional sport, you need a degree of exceptional athleticism. And the best medically, scientifically and psychologically recommended way to develop such all around athleticism is ample free play and multiple sport participation as a child.

All that being said, sport can teach many valuable life lessons for our kids irrespective of whether they play in high school or beyond high school.

(1) They learn how to win and lose gracefully
(2) They learn the value of hard work
(3) They learn team work and what it’s like to be counted on
(4) They learn self reliance
(5) They what it’s like to have a great coach/boss and what its like not to have a great coach/boss

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