One of the most heated talking points in our industry today is that of early sport specialization, or ESS. It seems like nowadays everyone and their mother wants to jump on the bandwagon and talk about how ESS is ruining our kids.
And you know what – they’re not totally wrong.
But here’s the thing – I don’t think they’re totally right either.
As with most complex problems in life, there’s a lot more to this situation than meets the eye.
As I was putting this article together, I found myself conflicted because there are numerous “authors” within me that want to say their piece.
- You’ve got the science geek in me who likes numbers and stats
- You’ve got the coach in me who loves pragmatism and figuring out what works
- You’ve got the parent who dearly loves his kids and wants them to not only enjoy sports, but also to love their bodies and be able to move well for a lifetime
What Is Specialization – And Why Is It Bad?
Let me start you off with a pretty ridiculous stat:
Highly specialized youth athletes have a 2.25x (range of 1.27-3.99) increased risk of serious overuse injuries over non-specialized peers.
So let’s ask a basic question:
How do you define a “specialized” athlete?
The criteria that Jayanthi and others used to classify specialization included three factors:
- Year-round training (>8 months per year)
- Chooses a single main sport
- Quits all other sports to focus on one sport
If an athlete answers “yes” to all three, then he or she is considered a highly specialized athlete.
What’s interesting here is that this doesn’t seem to be limited to any one sport in particular.
While baseball seems to get a lot of press due to the rapid increase in elbow issues and Tommy John surgeries, you can find similar stats across numerous sports.
- Patellofemoral pain in basketball, volleyball, and soccer
- Back pain in tennis
- Wrist pain in gymnastics
- Hip pain in hockey
Now it’s not as though the powers that be are simply turning a blind eye to the issue either. USA baseball has tried to impose age-adjusted pitch counts and limited pitchers to 100 innings per year.
The Women’s Tennis Association has also tried to improve the length and quality of their athletes' careers by instituting the age eligibility rule, or AER. The AER mandates that athletes can’t start competing until 14 years old, and then slowly increases the number of tournaments they can play per year until they turn 18.
But looking at physical issues and ailments is just the tip of the iceberg. There are emotional and psychological ramifications as well.
It’s hypothesized that early specialization leads to emotional and/or psychological issues such as low self-esteem, depression, and burnout.
Not to mention the fact that you simply miss out on the simple activities of being a kid – playing with friends, spending time with family, or maybe just relaxing and decompressing a bit!
To summarize this, I’m going to cite Istvan Balyi. Balyi is probably the world’s foremost authority on long-term athletic development, or LTAD, and actually has a wonderful textbook by the same name.
In that book, he pinpoints the following issues with our current sports system:
- In team sports, young athletes over-compete and under-train
- Adult training and competition programs are superimposed on developing athletes
- Preparation is geared toward the short-term outcome (winning) and not toward the process of long-term development
- Fundamental movement skills and sport skills are either not taught properly or not taught at all
- Parents are not educated about LTAD
- In most sports, the competition system interferes with athlete development
And the sad part is I’m picking and choosing the points he makes; there are many, many more I could have have added.
Figure 1: The comparison of Early Sport Specialization (ESS) and Multilateral Development (MD) have been well covered. Long term athletic development may hinge on an athlete putting off specialization until after the age of 18.
So What's The Point of Early Sport Specialization?
I think it’s fair to say that the system itself is flawed. As kids growing up, many of us remember that when the season changed (spring/summer/winter/fall), so did the sport we played.
But nowadays, there are local soccer programs where the U-7 teams are practicing three times per week, and having anywhere from 1-3 matches every weekend!
If we dig deeper, we see that samples of young athletes show nearly 30% of our school-age youth are specializing.
So the next question is, why?
Why does an athlete choose to specialize at an early age?
While there are times it’s about sports mastery, I think it’s often with the end goal of getting a college scholarship.
But is there any truth to that? Does specializing early help you get a college scholarship?
Unfortunately, the chances of any athlete getting a scholarship to play sports in college is minimal. According to ScholarshipStats.com, an athlete who plays a sport in high school only has a 1.8% chance of getting a D1 scholarship.
But what’s really interesting is when you compare what the literature describes as elite versus near-elite performers.
What most research has found is that while near-elite performers specialize and focus their efforts on a single sport sooner, their counterparts who specialize later tend to see better long-term results and achieve higher level of success.
But when it’s all said and done, getting the college scholarship may come down to one issue your child has no control over:
It’s estimated that as many as 40% of those athletes getting scholarships had a parent who was a collegiate and/or professional athlete.
So as the saying goes, you better pick your parents well!
Whether it’s from the physical or mental toll it takes on the body, I simply can’t imagine pushing kids towards ESS.
But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Is ESS the Only Cause for Alarm?
If you read enough research (or people who comment on research), you’ll hear one line referenced time and time again:
Correlation does not equal causation.
It’s virtually impossible to say that 100% without question early specialization leads to an injury, or burnout, or some sort of issue.
But does it play a role? Most likely.
So instead of simply bashing ESS, let’s put all the issues on the table.
Issue #1 – Training Volume
One of the confounding issues here isn’t just the fact that these kids are specializing early, but the total volume of training they’re being exposed to as well.
It’s been noted that intense training may result in injury, with 16 hours of training per week being one cutoff.
Another way to look at this is to limit the total amount of training per week in hours to their equivalent age in years (i.e. a 10-year-old should do no more than 10 hours of training/practice/competition per week).
In my opinion, simply limiting the amount of formal practice and competition alone would go a long way to reducing those injury numbers. But here’s another factor I think we often fail to address.
Issue #2 – Physical Preparedness
Many of us who coach athletes intuitively know that our athletes are less physically prepared than they have been in years past.
And as it turns out, our eyes are not wrong.
Researchers have found trends in declining levels of fitness in the bent-arm hang, sit-up performance, handgrip strength, shuttle run performance, and trunk flexibility in our youth.
Issue #3 – Lack of Physical Education Class
As a young man, one of my favorite parts of school was gym class.
I had gym class from 1st through 8th grade for 30 minutes every day. And my freshman year of high school, we actually had gym class daily for 50 minutes!
Every two to three weeks, we would rotate through a different sport. We’d spend the first week learning specific skills (throwing, hitting, catching, etc.), and then spend the next week or two actually playing the game.
Nowadays, kids are getting less and less time in PE class, and the time they do get is rarely scheduled to learn sport and movement skills.
This leads to less instruction and competition for well-developed kids, but even worse, for your non-athletic kids, this virtually ensures they will stay sedentary and un-athletic their entire lives.
When else are these kids going to get a chance to learn about movement, develop motor skills, and take advantage of the malleability of their young, developing body?
Issue #4 – Competing Demands
Last but not least, the fact of the matter is there are competing demands for our youth today that simply weren’t available 20-30 years ago.
I got my first Nintendo when I was 11 years old. I still remember that Christmas, as I didn’t leave my room for 8 hours straight while I tried to dominate Super Mario Bros!
But nowadays, there are so many more potential options.
There are video games.
There’s the internet.
All of which require zero physical effort and physical literacy.
I mention all these confounding factors to shine a light on all the potential issues we’re facing with today’s youth.
While it’s easy to simply blame ESS for all the issues our young athletes are experiencing, it’s really just one piece of a very complex puzzle.
4 Ways to Improve the Long Term Health of Youth Athletes
Do you want to know the type of person that really bugs me?
It’s the person that can you tell about all of the things that suck in the world, but doesn’t offer any viable solutions.
So if I bid you adieu at this point, chances are you’d feel the same way about me.
I’ve talked about all the various issues we’re dealing with in regard to ESS, physical preparedness, and competing demands.
But how do we go about actually dealing with this issue?
In many ways, it can feel like we’re fighting an uphill battle. From the big sports organization to the public education system, there isn’t one simple solution that will cure all that ails us.
Here’s my laundry list of ideas that range from the macro and big picture to little things you can do on a day-to-day basis to help take back the health and well-being of our young athletes.
1. Encourage Them to Play Multiple Sports
This first one is simple: Encourage the children you’re around to play more than one sport.
And keep in mind, it doesn’t require them to be a three-sport athlete until they’re 18 years old. A lot of kids who follow the LTAD approach play three sports until they’re 13 or 14 years old, and then start to focus in more on the two they enjoy the most (or they’re most successful with).
2. Encourage Free Play Outdoors
Perhaps every bit as important as playing multiple sports is encouraging free play outdoors.
While learning sports and movement skills in a controlled environment is all fine and dandy, kids needs to explore more and learn all the potential that their body has.
Furthermore, when you allow kids time to play freely without adult supervision, and without the rules of a game, kids are allowed the freedom to come up with creative play situations.
3. Take PE Role as Parents
This is a big one, and it’s near and dear to my heart as a parent of two little people.
PE class today is what it is. My daughter (who is 6.5 years old and in 1st grade) has gym class one time per week. I don’t care how you slice it – that’s not enough exposure to help kids learn about their bodies.
As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to become her PE teacher. Most days when I get home from work, we find ways to get outdoors and play.
- Sometimes it’s soccer
- Sometimes it’s tennis
- Sometimes it’s just tag
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you do – as long as you do something.
Find ways to expose your children to multiple sports, get them outdoors, and let them explore the beauty of their body and the freedom of movement it has available to it.
4. Make the Gym Your 2nd (or 3rd) Sport
Last but not least, as coaches we’ve all dealt with a kid who specialized too early.
Case in point: We had a kid come into our facility a few years back who had specialized in baseball. And if you gave this kid anything that looked like a baseball swing, such as a med ball throw, he would absolutely crush it.
The downside? This kid couldn’t skip or bear crawl!
But if you get a kid at 11 or 12 years old that’s already specialized, the chances of you getting him or her to start playing multiple sports is slim to none.
So what do you do?
You find a training facility that will essentially be their second (or third) sport.
This is something we actively try to do at IFAST. In the imperfect world we live in, if a kid isn’t going to play multiple sports, we’re going to address that via smart training on our end.
Figure 2: Improving the long term health of youth athletes isn't a complicated or complex model. With the rise of ESS, you can take simple steps to improve the long term health outcomes of your youth athletes.
We’re going to fill in this movement gaps and widen their movement vocabulary.
And I’m not going to stand up here and act like I know everything in this regard. If you want to follow some great leaders in our industry who are doing this every day, I would highly recommend following guys like Jeremy Frisch, Dan Noble, and Grant Gardis.
Because here’s one thing we can all hang our hat on: in all the articles and reviews I’ve poured over to pull this article together, one quote really stood out:
"All youth (including inactive youth) can benefit from periodized strength and conditioning to help prepare for the demands of competitive sport participation."
Quite simply, taking a more active role in the development of our youth athletes is something we must make a priority in the decades to come.
You Can Turn the Tide
I hope you can appreciate what a difficult article this is to write.
Volumes have been written on this topic, and simply jumping on the bandwagon and bashing ESS doesn’t serve anyone.
Is ESS an issue that must be dealt with?
But until we look at the multi-factorial problems our young athletes are dealing with, it’s a reductionist answer that fails to respect the big picture.
If we want the next generation of young athletes to be successful, we need a comprehensive approach to a large problem.
- We need to expose them to a variety of sports
- We need them to be more physically active, day in and day out
- And most importantly, we need to find ways for them to enjoy moving more
If we can do that, I truly believe we can turn the tide on ESS, and with it, the health and well-being of our youth.
But it all begins with you.
Suggested Reading and References
- Balyi, Istvan. Long-Term Athletic Development.
- Myer, G., N. Jayanthi, J. Difori, A. Faigenbaum, A. Kiefer, D. Logerstedt, and L. Micheli. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health, 2015, Sep-Oct;7(5):437-42.
- Myer, G., N. Jayanthi, J. Difori, A. Faigenbaum, A. Kiefer, D. Logerstedt, and L. Micheli. Sport Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialiazation in Youth Athletes. Sports Health, 2016, Jan-Feb;8(1):65-73.
- Feeley, B., J. Agel, R. LaPrade. When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? American Journal of Sports Medicine, 2016, 44(1):234-41.