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Youth Sports Specialization

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I could not agree more with the Rick Collin's article "Specialization in Youth Sports" in the Windser Journal. Mr Collin is a high school track coach who relates his experience with a young girl and her parents' push for soccer success. He writes about turning away a girl who came out for track so that he would be her personal soccer speed coach. She (or her parents) wanted a speed workout three days a week. This was on top of the personal coaching she got in drill work twice a week, skill work once a week, soccer practices twice a week and her premier team practices three times a week. There is no doubt we live in a sports culture. Kids are surrounded by images of Venus and Serena Williams, Lebron James, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, and Joe Mauer just to name a few. Sports can be great for kids, but their involvement should be monitored and balanced. Organized sport provides benefits such as increased self esteem, social skill building, physical exercise and improved decision making abilities. Unfortunately, sports can also have negative consequences including: eating disorders, violence, aggression and low self esteem associated with too much pressure to win. A recent trend in youth sports has been early specialization, which is a child focusing exclusively on one sport as opposed to participating in multiple sports.

While proponents of early specialization contend that individuals that start at an earlier age reach a higher level of performance than those who train equally hard but commit at a later age, the Power Law of Practice dictates otherwise. The Power Law of Practice states that performance increases monotonically according to a power function. In other words, the more time an athlete devotes to practice, they greater their level of achievement but the more difficult it becomes to make further improvements. Barynina (1992) found that Russian age group swimmers who specialized at later ages advanced at a greater rate than those who did so earlier and declared that early specialization had no performance related advantages. Hodges (1996) found that training based differences between elite and nonelite wrestlers did not occur until approximately 18 years of age. Additional studies in this same vein found similar patterns emerge for soccer, field hockey and triathlon athletes. In addition, Wiersma (2000) notes that specialization appears to be more of a concern for female athletes. He goes on to note that sports that are encouraged for girls prior to the onset of puberty often involved high risks of eating disorders, amenorrhea and developmental and overuse injuries as a result of training. Pressure from parents to excel in one sport at a younger age has been shown to cause a lack of enjoyment in the sport. In addition the deliberate practice advocated by the early specialization approach may be at odds with the level of enjoyment necessary for a long term commitment to a sport. This lack of enjoyment can lead to burn out.

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of early sport diversification verses early sport specialization. Research has shown that in all but a select group of sports, elite athletes did not become specialized in their sport until later in the development cycle. The so called sampling of sports allowed the elite athletes to learn transferable skills such as balance, speed, mental focus, decision making and body control allowing them to become better overall athletes. The inherent breaks that come from different sporting seasons is another benefit of sampling. These breaks not only allow for physical and mental rest, but also allow the child to participate in important non sport social activities. Another important finding was that deliberate play as opposed to structured or deliberate practice was just as beneficial to the athlete's performance and enjoyment of the sport later in life. Play for play's sake allows children the ability to learn a sport in an informal way where improvising is the norm. Berry (2003) studied the activities of Australian Rules football players and found that during childhood, the expert decision makers invested a greater amount of time in deliberate play activities than structured practice activities which was not the case for the non experts. Research has further shown that there is little difference between a mediocre and elite athlete until the athlete has been participating in the sport for at least ten years. Referred to as the rule of ten, Baker(2003) summarizes that a 10 year commitment to high levels of training is the minimum requirement to reach the expert level. Children who start sooner might become experts quicker, but depending on the type of training required to be an expert, burn out could occur earlier as well.

When done correctly sports help children develop into confident, motivated, physically fit adults. Fraser-Thomas (2005) concludes that organized sports programs need to be consciously designed to assure that youth have positive rather than negative experiences. He further advocates coaches and parents to use an applied sport-programming model of youth development which considers youth's physical, psychological, social and intellectual development and are thus conscientiously designed to foster developmentally appropriate training patterns and social influences. These programs should stress competence, confidence, connection, compassion and character and will combine to create positive youth development. Parents and coaches must walk a fine line when dealing with young children and sports. Children should be allowed to experiment with different activities including multiple sports to help them develop advanced motor and cognitive skills without excessive pressure or expectations. If nurtured properly, these skills will serve them though out life regardless of the level of sport they achieve.

References:
Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise?. High Ability Studies, 14(1), 85.
Barynina, P. (1992). The aftermath of early sports specialization for highly qualified swimmers. Fitness and sports review international, 27(4), 132.
Berry, J. (2003, June). Expert game based decision making in Australian football: How is it developed and how can it be trained? Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland, School of Human Movement studies.
Collin, R.(2005, June 28). Specializing in youth sports. Windster Journal. Retrieved on 3/31/2010 from http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=14940489&BRD=1633&PAG=461&dept_id=11612&rfi=6
Fraser-Thomas, J L. (2005). Youth sport programs: An avenue to foster positive youth development. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 10(1), 19.
Hodges, N.L. (1996). Wrestling with the nature of expertise: A sport specific test of Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer's (1993) theory of deliberate practice. International Journal of Sports Psyhology, 27.
Wiersma, L D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric exercise science, 12(1), 13.

8 Replies

  • Yourth sports should be about two things: fun and BALANCE. Making a child's life revolve around one sport more often leads to disasterous consequences and burnout, rather than happiness and health. Parents should let their children's interests guide their sport experiences! And try to keep in mind that it's just a game.

  • Sport specialization is a topic that has grown over the past several years. Athletes as well as their parents are deciding to forgo different sports to specialize in their “dominant sport”. Athletes are playing one sport all year long. It is important to understand the Minnesota State High School League’s stance on this issue. From what I understand there are numerous rules in place by the state making it a violation for playing certain sports and certain times. For example during the fall volleyball and football seasons, the hockey or basketball players cannot play until a certain date. There are also rules for coaches holding a practice for their players at certain times of the year like summer. I agree with the High School League and think that each sport should have their own season. If I am picking a team I would much rather have a well rounded athlete than a one sport star.

  • Sport specialization is a topic that has grown over the past several years. Athletes as well as their parents are deciding to forgo different sports to specialize in their “dominant sport”. Athletes are playing one sport all year long. It is important to understand the Minnesota State High School League’s stance on this issue. From what I understand there are numerous rules in place by the state making it a violation for playing certain sports and certain times. For example during the fall volleyball and football seasons, the hockey or basketball players cannot play until a certain date. There are also rules for coaches holding a practice for their players at certain times of the year like summer. I agree with the High School League and think that each sport should have their own season. If I am picking a team I would much rather have a well rounded athlete than a one sport star.

  • Although you research appears quite valid, it is interesting to note that most elite athletes have been working at their sport for years. Lindsey Vonn for example started skiing as soon as she could and when she was 11 her family moved to Colorado so that she could train more. It takes years and years of practice to become as good as she is and if she had not started early like she did, she probably would not be in the same place she is today.
    The thing I think is important is that parents avoid putting too much pressure on their child. Many parents try to live vicariously through their own children and always push them to be better. The end result of this is often that children no longer enjoy the sport.

  • My stance on youth sport specialization is much like the others. I feel that in order for younger children to actually find what they are good at they need to explore each sport and find what sports they are good at and which ones they enjoy. If they only focus on one it isn't fun anymore and they just burn-out. I know that towards the end of each of my sports I was definitely ready for the next new sport to begin. You just need a change of pace and then in the summer you can focus more on one to get better at that sport. Another thing that is great about playing multiple sports is the fact that each sport a child plays will help him/her in their other sports. For example, I ran cross country and that got me into great shape just in time for basketball season to begin!

  • My sister played a variety of sports through middle school, however started specializing in volleyball as a freshman in high school. It was an incredible commitment by her and my parents. She played for her high school team, a local club team, and a junior national team. She had tournaments all over the country, along with camps and practices all the time. It all worked out as she received a DI full scholarship to play, but my sister has told me on a few occasions that she wishes she was not a volleyball player and was a regular student for once. However, she still loves the game and burn out doesn't really seem like an option to her.

  • This article is excellent. Youth sport specialization has been a topic of interest that seems to take the 'back burner'. Excelling in a sport is a huge self-esteem boost for a child and their parent(s). And if everything works out, the child keeps excelling. However, when the child becomes swarmed by pressure and injuries, the child may suffer huge consequences (dislike for the sport, an eating disorder, an athletic-related injury etc.). This isn't fair to any child. I believe youth need physical activity at a young age and should be encouraged to play a sport. With that said, youth should find a balance between play and sport. Kids develop fully through experimentation, balance, and encouragement. Excelling in a sport may have its benefits, but youth, parents, and coaches must know that being well-rounded in everything (including sports) will shape an individual in every aspect of life. Life's all about balance and finding that happy-medium.

  • I know that sport specialization is increasing and that those who specialize believe they will be better at that sport than those who play more than one sport. This can be true in that the more you do a certain thong the better you get it at. However, many people will suffer from burnout and end up quitting the sport all together with no experience in another sport. I think at the youth level kids should play many sports and then once they get to high school they can focus in on the one or two that they are best at to try and gain the college scholarship that some desire.

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