*Disclaimer: ALL thoughts, opinions, claims belong to myself, and in no way are intended to reflect the thoughts and beliefs of my current employer.
It is undeniable that youth athletes are specializing at younger ages than ever before. For those that don’t know, Early Sport Specialization (ESS) is the exclusion of participation from other sports in order to solely participate in once specific sport at a young age. This is a direct contradiction to Early Sampling, where youth athletes participate in multiple sports for enjoyment and overall athletic development.
I want to share a research article with you, one which looks at the ESS patterns of professional baseball players. But first, let’s look at both sides of early specialization:
Possible Benefits of Early Sport Specialization
With the ever-growing incentives for youth athletes to separate themselves from their peers (i.e. scholarships, professional contracts, notoriety), parents and youth athletes alike are tending to specialize earlier in their respective sport of choice. I’ve seen this first hand, having coached high school baseball in Florida (a warm-weather climate suitable for year-round playing) for the past 5 years.
This has inevitably accelerated the development of our youth ballplayers, as the body must adapt to the demands imposed upon it. This may be anecdotal, but I bet most high school coaches would agree that youth athletes are throwing harder than they ever have before. We can see these same trends at the higher levels as well, with the average fastball velocity in Major League Baseball going up as of late.
Also, motor learning is specific to the skill being learned. Thus, practicing the same skills repeatedly (such as throwing and swinging) can certainly improve those skills immensely.
But, these two “benefits” mentioned above can very easily become detriments to the youth athlete long-term. ESS is a double-edged sword.
The Detriments of Early Sport Specialization
The early practice of baseball skills like pitching in a year-round fashion can lead to physiological, neurological, and anatomical adaptations. These same adaptations that sounded like benefits earlier may actually pose as morphological changes that can lead to issues down the road. Early Sport Specialization has been found to increase the likeliness of chronic injury in baseball players (Olsen II, Fleisig, Dun, Loftice, and Andrews, 2006). And, anecdotally, the same characteristics and occurrences that seem to follow early baseball specialization in Florida (such as year-round playing, pitching for multiple teams, increased velocity, and participating in showcase events) are also risk factors for elbow injury (ASMI, 2014).
Similarly, it must be understood that because motor learning is thought to be specific to the skill being learned, their is not necessarily going to be a carryover to other sports or activities. In short, overall athleticism is capped and limited by the number of sports or activities in which a youth athlete participates.
Early Sport Specialization in Professional Baseball
Ginsburg et al. (2014) looked at patterns of specialization in professional baseball players, whereby 708 MiLB players under the age of 40 were surveyed on their history of playing sports prior to making baseball a career.
In short, here are some of the findings:
The mean age players began playing organized baseball was 6.16 years of age
The mean age of specialization was 15.52 years of age
The majority of players (52%) of players did not specialize in baseball until the age of at least 17
(Ginsburg et al. 2014)
Now consider, when did you start specializing in baseball? When did your child begin playing ball year-round at the exclusion of other sports?
Certainly this is just a sample of all professional players. And, it doesn’t mean that a player who specialized early will fail to realize their professional baseball dreams. Conversely, some 3-sport athletes may never play a down, inning, or quarter as a collegiate or professional athlete.
But, it still might be smart to consider or heed the present evidence and the experiences of those who have “made it”. At the end of the day it is about what’s best for the child – not the “athlete”, not the coach, not the ego, and not the parents.
ASMI. (2014). Position statement for Tommy John injuries in baseball pitchers.
Ginsburg R., Danforth N., et al. (2014). Patterns of specialization in professional baseball players, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 8 (3), 261-275.