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Specialization in Youth Sport

This is an excerpt from Best Practice for Youth Sport by Robin Vealey & Melissa Chase.

We've already learned that expert athletes tend to participate in many sports and activities, emphasizing deliberate play and enjoyment, until age 12. Generally, they begin to specialize, or narrow their focus, in one favored sport around age 13. So we know that early specialization is not required for expertise in most sports. However, many parents and coaches believe that there are still advantages to early sport specialization, so why not do it? And if athletes should specialize in their teen years, what does that mean? Should they drop out of all activities and do one sport to the exclusion of all other activities? How narrowly should they specialize? And, just because elite athletes have been shown to specialize in their teen years, does that mean that all youth athletes should follow that pathway?

Specialization, Diversification, and Overspecialization

Specialization involves an investment in a single sport through systematic training and competition, typically including year-round participation in that sport, to pursue proficiency and enjoyment in a signature activity. The opposite of specialization is diversification, which is an investment in a broad range of sports and activities. Although we tend to view specialization and diversification dualistically, as categorical opposites, in reality they are on a continuum representing the degree to which athletes specialize or diversify (see figure 10.3).

Figure 10.3 Specialization continuum.
Specialization continuum.

Degrees of Sport Specialization

Our daughter sampled soccer, tae kwon do, basketball, volleyball, and track (athletics) before age 14, at which time she chose to focus solely on volleyball. She participated in a fall school season, a spring club season, a summer camp season, and off-season conditioning in volleyball throughout high school. However, she also participated in the steel drum band, art club, and Academic Challenge team. So, you could say she "specialized" in volleyball, but she chose to participate in other activities. Some youth athletes have a signature sport that is their favorite, which they engage in year-round (often achieving awards and opportunities for higher-level participation) while also engaging in other sports in the off-season for enjoyment and cross-training.

So our definition of specialization emphasizes a narrowing of focus and main emphasis on one sport as a signature activity, with the possible continuation of some complementary or secondary activities. Research has shown that elite athletes narrowed their number of activities to focus on their main sport in the specializing years but remained involved in a couple of other sporting activities for relaxation and cross-training during the off-season (Baker et al., 2003).

However, a growing trend in the United States has been to push for exclusive specialization, in which athletes discontinue all other sports and most other extracurricular activities, to train and compete year-round in one sport. This is often mandated by coaches who, for some unfathomable reason, have the power to cut athletes from their programs unless the athletes agree to quit all other sports and most activities. For example, a high school soccer coach in our area required attendance at a summer-long conditioning program and refused to allow athletes to miss a workout to go on summer vacations (even for a week) with their families.

Exclusive specialization has contributed to the epidemic of overuse injuries emerging in the past two decades by depriving young athletes of the benefits of cross-training and off-season rest. So although specialization is not inherently bad, the narrow ways in which it is interpreted by overzealous coaches have created negative outcomes for youth athletes.

The Problem of Overspecialization

When the exclusivity or intensity of specialization is so great that children suffer adverse mental and physical health effects, it becomes overspecialization. Overspecialization occurs when children, often controlled by parents or coaches, pursue expertise and extrinsic rewards in one sport through year-round systematic training and competition, and sacrifice their psychological development and well-being as well as participation in most all other activities typical of kids their age. Unfortunately, examples of overspecialization are common in sport.

The title of former elite gymnast Jennifer Sey's (2008) book says it all: Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. Dominique Moceanu was the youngest (age 14) member of the American gymnastics team who won the gold medal in team competition in the 1996 Olympic Games. Her book, Off Balance (2012), describes a sickening overspecialization experience of emotional and physical abuse, including the ignoring and ridiculing of injuries. In his autobiography Open, Andre Agassi (2009) describes the abuse that he endured from his father as a child: "No one ever asked me if I wanted to play tennis, let alone make it my life. . . . I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing because I have no choice. . . . I beg him for a chance to play [soccer with friends]. He shouts at the top of his lungs: ‘You're a tennis player! You're going to be number one in the world! You're going to make lots of money. That's the plan, and that's the end of it'" (pp. 27, 33, 57).

Emotional abuse has been documented across many youth sports (Gervis & Dunn, 2004; Kerr & Stirling, 2012; Stirling & Kerr, 2007). This form of abuse includes belittling, humiliation, threats, and denial of attention and support; and it goes beyond the strong communication and external regulation often used by coaches to push athletes in their training. Overspecialization involves adult behavior that crosses the line; the well-being of athletes is superseded by an obsession with attaining extrinsic rewards in sport (e.g., Olympic medals, college scholarships, or simply winning). This is called the rationalization of sport, whereby performance becomes more important than the human beings who are producing that performance (Donnelly, 1993). A swimming parent explains, "It was tough to see it [abuse] happening, but . . . once your kid starts winning championships it's easy to forget that she may be damaged along the way" (Kerr & Stirling, 2012, p. 201).

Water Break

The Marinovich Project

The Marinovich Project is a 2011 ESPN film about Todd Marinovich, raised by his father in a highly controlled environment with the goal of shaping Todd into the greatest football quarterback of all time. His father, Marv, stated, "The question I asked myself was, ‘How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?'" (Sagar, 2009). Marv put Todd through special stretching and flexibility exercises while he was still in the cradle. Todd ate only fresh-cooked strained vegetables as a baby and continued a special diet throughout his development. On nonschool days, he regularly completed 4-hour workouts, including fitness training, stretching, weightlifting, plyometrics, and throwing drills. He had a stable of scientific specialists honing his physiological, biomechanical, and mental skills throughout his youth.

Marinovich's talent and training led him to huge success in high school, where in 1987 he amassed a national-record 9,194 passing yards and was the National High School Player of the Year. He chose to play college football at the University of Southern California, and although he was successful, he was suspended from the team multiple times for rules transgressions. He signed with the National Football League Los Angeles Raiders, but was released after two years of professional football. After that, he was arrested for numerous drug violations, and for years he was a full-blown drug addict. Esquire referred to him as "the man who never was," stating, "You could say that Todd missed his childhood. Sports took away his first twenty years. Then drugs took the second twenty" (Sagar, 2009).

In the film, Marinovich talks about his personal discomfort with his upbringing, admitting he felt like a "freak show." In reflecting back about when he won the starting quarterback job with the Raiders, he stated, "I'd done what I wanted to do, [which was] please the old man. I'd accomplished all I wanted, and I was done." He admits that his drug use was an escape from the intensity of his overspecialized world. It is not our intent to denigrate Todd Marinovich, but rather to use his story as an example of the perils of overspecialization.

Summary of the Specialization Continuum

Overspecialization is specialization gone amuck, because it sacrifices the most important thing - the well-being of the athlete - for selfish adult motives. It should be avoided at all costs. Whether athletes choose to remain diversified or to specialize once they leave their early sampling years should be up to them.

There are athletes who choose to narrowly specialize in one sport because it is their passion, they enjoy it, and they choose to spend their time focusing on that sport. Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) star Rickie Fowler's mom recalls her son's devotion to golf: "When he was 7, he told me, ‘Mom, I don't want to play baseball or do gymnastics anymore. Just golf. I want to be a pro.' And he worked on it every day. He sacrificed his social life. No parties. No vacations. Didn't go to football games. I was a little worried back then. He actually allows himself a little bit more fun now. But either way, he loved it" (Diaz, 2014, p. 108). Earlier in the book, we offered similar stories about Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Sidney Crosby, Serena Williams, and Chris Evert. Clearly, there are athletes who choose to specialize early because the sport is their passion. But the problem is that many adults see these examples and assume that early, exclusive specialization is the pathway for all kids to take. We forget that the passion and commitment must be inside of the young athletes, and the choice to specialize and train to the exclusion of most other pursuits is theirs.

Many teenagers choose to remain diverse and participate in many sports and activities. It's really an individual preference for the vast majority of youth sport participants who are not interested in pursuing expertise or elite status in sport. We have noticed that because the performance levels of youth sport continue to improve, it's getting more difficult to make high school sport teams. So some specialized commitment and focus on a sport may be necessary to continue participation at the high school or selective club levels. Athletes should decide for themselves whether and how much to specialize, with guidance and support (not mandates) from parents and coaches.

Merits of Early Diversification

The next issue to address is when, or how early, athletes should specialize in a sport. Most sport scientists and professional organizations advocate early (12 years and under) diversification as opposed to early specialization in sport (e.g., American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000; National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2010). In this section, we've identified several reasons why early diversification is a good idea for most children.

  • Children can diversify early and still attain elite athlete status in most sports as an adult. As discussed previously in the chapter, elite athletes in a variety of sports have achieved elite sport status after engaging in early diversification (or sampling) in their childhood years (typically until around age 12) (Baker et al., 2003; Gulbin et al., 2010; MacNamara et al., 2010b; Soberlak & Cote, 2003). A study of over 4,000 Olympic athletes found that the average starting age in their chosen sports was 11.5 years (Gullich, 2007, as cited in Vaeyens et al., 2009). Overall, specialized training at an early age was not a prerequisite for reaching elite levels across a range of Olympic sports. A study of 708 minor league professional baseball players showed that although their mean starting age was 6 years, the players' mean age of specializing in baseball was 15 years (Ginsburg et al., 2014). The majority of players (52%) did not specialize until at least 17 years of age. Most sports, like the ones in these studies, are considered late-specialization sports, in which exclusive specialization and extensive deliberate practice are not necessary before age 12.

    On the other hand, gymnastics and figure skating have been designated early-specialization sports (Balyi et al., 2013; Vaeyens et al., 2009), in which elite levels of performance are achieved before puberty. Gymnastics and figure skating are subjectively judged, with performance expectations calling for smaller, lighter, more flexible bodies to execute the difficult skills required at the elite level. Thus, it is typical for gymnasts and skaters who aspire to attain elite status to begin extensive technical training very early, and there is evidence that expert athletes specialized earlier than nonexpert athletes in these sports (O'Connor, 2011). Former Olympian Dominique Moceanu began gymnastics at age 3, and by age 7 she was training six days a week for at least 25 hours per week.

    Overall, research supports early diversification as facilitative to athletes' development in most sports. Kids can start their favorite sports early and also participate in other sports and activities. Early diversification doesn't mean that a young athlete can't spend a significant amount of time doing the sport he likes best. We would just recommend that early experiences in the late-specialization sports include a lot of deliberate play and spontaneous practice, as opposed to excessive levels of highly technical deliberate practice.

  • Early diversification develops a broad range of fundamental motor skills and different sport experiences that provide the athlete with more performance options and athleticism if they choose to specialize in one sport later. A youth baseball academy coach discusses highly specialized athletes who can perform the mechanics of their sport but lack well-rounded motor skills: "My God, this kid is a horrible athlete. He can't run. He can't move. He's spent all his time in the batting cage. So many of these kids have played no other sport. They're one-trick ponies" (Sokolove, 2008, p. 204).

    David Leadbetter, internationally recognized golf instructor, coaches Charles Howell III, a PGA tour player who has not yet realized the great promise he showed as a junior golfer. Leadbetter says of Howell (whom he has coached from the age of 12): "Charles has had a solid career, but he hasn't hit the heights some thought he might. I have always felt part of his problem is that he played only golf growing up. That hurts him. In other ball games you develop a feel for throwing and distance. But Charles never did that. He doesn't have the instinctive touch or hand - eye coordination you need to hit the ball close [inside 120 yards, or 110 meters]. If only he'd played baseball as a kid. That would have helped his awareness for distance (Huggan, 2013, p. 37).

  • Early specialization has been linked to dropping out of sport. Ice hockey players who dropped out of their sport began off-ice training at a younger age and invested more hours per year in training at ages 12 and 13 as compared to active players (Wall & Cote, 2007). Both the dropout and active players enjoyed a diverse and playful introduction to sport, but the earlier specialized activities of the dropout players may have affected their motivation to continue in the sport.

    A similar pattern was found in swimming (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, & Deakin, 2008a). Adolescent swimmers who dropped out were involved in fewer extracurricular activities and less unstructured swimming play during their early years, and also began more specialized training activities (training camps, dryland training) earlier than active swimmers. So although the starting ages of the dropout and active swimmers did not differ, the earlier specialized focus of the dropouts may have contributed to their discontinuation of swimming. Interestingly, dropout swimmers also reached "top in club" status earlier than active swimmers. The authors suggest that a comedown from child stardom to adolescent mediocrity, with resultant disappointment and decreased confidence, could occur for some kids who specialize and achieve early success.

    Because dropping out is a motivational issue, it may be that early exclusive sport specialization does not allow youth athletes to experience the playful enjoyment found to be important to elite athlete development before age 12 (Bloom, 1985; Cote et al., 2003). A premature emphasis on technical training, deliberate practice, and competition may thwart the falling in love with a sport, which has repeatedly been shown to fuel the passion and commitment needed to continue to higher levels of sport.

  • Early specialization has been linked to burning out of sport. Another negative consequence that has been associated with early sport specialization is burnout. Discussed more fully in chapter 11, burnout occurs when a previously enjoyable activity becomes drudgery, so that athletes feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Adolescent athletes specializing in swimming, diving, and gymnastics were higher in emotional exhaustion (burnout) when compared to more diversified adolescent athletes who participated in a variety of activities (Strachan, Cote, & Deakin, 2009). A sole focus on tennis at a young age has also been linked to burnout (and dropout) in elite tennis players (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996).

  • Early diversification helps kids develop multidimensionality, or multiple pieces in their identity pie. The development of a multidimensional identity, or self-concept, is important for the mental health and well-being of children. Exclusive specialization at a young age can restrict children to a unidimensional self-concept, which has been linked to burnout and psychological dysfunction (Coakley, 1992). Adolescent athletes who were engaged in other activities (e.g., performing arts, school, church) along with their sport participation have been shown to possess healthier psychological profiles than adolescents who participated only in sport (Zarrett et al., 2008).

    A useful activity to do with young athletes is to ask them to draw their personal identity pie, labeling various pieces of the pie to represent who they are. The pie on the left side of figure 10.4 provides a multidimensional example: A young tennis player identifies other personally significant activities or personal strengths that define who she is. The pie on the right side of figure 10.4 might be drawn by another young tennis player; she is narrowly unidimensional and would be vulnerable to major blows to her self-worth and self-concept when encountering obstacles in her pursuit of expertise in tennis. A multidimensional identity is a good insurance policy for kids because it provides them with broad coverage of their sense of self. Help young athletes develop lots of pieces in their pies.

Figure 10.4 Multidimensional versus unidimensional identity pie.
Multidimensional versus unidimensional identity pie.

Structural Strategies to Avoid Overspecialization and Exclusive Specialization

To quell the rising tide of professionalization, overspecialization, and exclusive early specialization, policies and regulations should be instituted at the organizational level. "Developmentalizing" should always trump professionalizing when it comes to youth sport. Two examples are provided here, and we encourage you to consider additional ways to protect the interests of young athletes.

  • Continue and expand the practice of implementing minimal age restrictions for athletes to compete in professional or international sport. The minimal age to compete internationally in gymnastics rose from 14 years before 1981, to 15 years in 1981, to 16 years in 1997 (one is eligible if one achieves the minimal age sometime in the Olympic or competition year). The age restriction is designed to protect child athletes from injury and exploitation, although it remains controversial, often with accusations of age falsification for international events. Professional tennis has a minimum age requirement of 14 years. The National Basketball Association requires draftees to be 19 years and one year removed from high school graduation, while prospects may be drafted right out of high school for Major League Baseball.

    These restrictions are important because they have a trickle-down effect on youth sport. When Kevin Garnett signed as the fifth pick in the National Basketball Association draft in 1995 straight out of high school, the search for star players moved down from high school to elementary school (Dohrmann, 2010). It fueled the pressure on kids to play year-round and travel extensively at extremely young ages to compete in national tournaments. For example, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) has sponsored a 2nd-grade boys' national championship tournament since 2004. Sport organizations and youth sport leaders should continue to lobby for age restrictions to protect kids from pressure to specialize early and exclusively.

  • No athlete should be restricted from diversification through high school participation. This recommendation is designed to preserve young athletes' rights to diversify their sport participation through their high school years. Others have recommended 15 years as the cutoff age for protected diversification (Wiersma, 2000), and we agree that this is a logical age cutoff. However, we see no reason that adults should mandate specialization before college when 98% of high school athletes are not going on to play at the collegiate level. Coaches and parents should guide young athletes in making important decisions about multiple sport participation versus more specialized approaches. But this should be discussed on an individual-case basis and should ultimately be the athlete's decision. We urge athletic directors and state and national high school sport associations to develop regulations that prevent coaches from having the power to restrict athletes' activities.


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