The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Early Sport Specialization- Part 2

In part one of this series, I discussed the myth that single-sport athletes are more successful than multi-sport athletes.  I also examined the risks of specializing in one sport too early.   See this link if you missed it.

So now the question…

If specializing in a sport early is not good, then how DO we set our kids up for long-term athletic success?

Let’s answer that question by taking a closer look at the development of a youth athlete.


Athletic Development-  What is it?

“Athletic development” is physical development of youth that includes development of health, skill, and performance-related components of fitness.

A good athletic development program should enhance performance, reduce injury risk, and improve confidence– something to keep in mind when choosing a program.


The Stages of Building an Athlete:

There are many different theories for developing athletic skill and/or talent.  To summarize all of them, youth athletes go through three stages:

1.  Early Childhood, a.k.a. the “investment stage” –  kids are introduced to movement and play

2.  Middle Childhood and Early Adolescence, or the “sampling years”–  kids are encouraged to try a lot of activities to improve their self-worth and self-esteem.  Later in this stage, they take responsibility for their own learning and training

3.  Late Adolescence and Teenage Years, or “specializing years” Self-worth and self-esteem continue to grow.  At the end of adolescence, sport-specific psychological and physical skills develop further


As stated above, youth athletes are ENCOURAGED to sample a variety of sports during childhood (encouraged!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Try different activities!  Not focus on one thing!).


Deliberate Play vs Deliberate Practice

It’s also important for young athletes to spend more time in “deliberate play” versus “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate play activities are inherently motivated- and geared towards maximizing enjoyment and fun.  Deliberate practice can increase risk for burnout (Not sure what burnout is?  Check out part 1 of this series).


Build a Foundation for Specialization

Sampling and deliberate play are the foundation for youth sports.  Specialization builds on that foundation.  If a child does not want to specialize in a particular sport, this same foundation provides the coordination and general motor skill development to try another activity.  (Always good to give your kids options, right?)

Need more reasons why sampling is a good thing?  Check out the International Society of Sport Psychology’s position stand on the topic here.


“That’s a great theory, but how does it apply to my child?”

See these tips below to maximize your child’s athletic potential.


1.  Don’t be tempted by short-term glory.   Parents should not feel pressured for their children to succeed in the short-term.  Youth development is a process.  Feel free to celebrate the “little wins” like weekend tournament victories, or a child’s first hat trick.  Encourage kids to continue to excel.  But don’t pressure kids to win.  Always remember the goal is to develop a well-rounded athlete that doesn’t experience burnout.

2.  More (variety) is better.  Expose children to lots of sports and activities.  Gear these towards deliberate play in early childhood.  This means trying different…

  • Sports
  • Coaches
  • Types of training and competition

There are some benefits to deliberate practice –  repetition can help build coordination.  But the amount of routine and repetition should increase only after building the foundation of sampling and deliberate play.

Remember that even though a child loves soccer, they are likely to enhance soccer skills such as field vision, explosive speed, and agility by playing similar sports like basketball or rugby


3.  Don’t follow the 10,000 rule.   A common “rule” in sports training is that 10,000 hours of practicing an activity (or 10 years) makes an “expert.”  This theory came out of research on musicians.   It does not apply to youth athletes for these reasons:

  • Doing an activity for 10,000 is not as effective as we thought (quality over quantity)
  • Most elite athletes specialized later in life-  without following this rule
  • Every athlete or child is different-  a generic number of hours doesn’t work for everyone

4.  Understand the unique needs of your athlete:  Every child matures at a different time or speed.   This has an impact on athlete training and development.   Coaches should understand there is never one method for all.  Early on, youth athletes should focus on developing good form and foundational movement skills.  Individualize any extra strength training programs to make the best gains and to decrease injury risk.


Does your child have an overuse injury?  Find out the safest way to recover.  Questions about your child’s training program?  Contact CLE Sports PT & Performance today for a free, 15-minute consult.

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