Ryan Faer: Today I am sharing with you a guest post – first part of a 3-part series – on the youth sports culture today, and early-sport specialization. This series was written by a good friend and colleague of mine, Lauren Green, who is the Latin American Coordinator with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
I met Lauren nearly three years ago when I was just an intern with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And, in the time since I have learned more from him than I can count. By combining a great formal education (Lauren will be starting his PhD in Health & Human Performance, with a focus on Long-Term Athletic Development) with years of experience at the collegiate, high school, and professional levels, Lauren brings a wealth of knowledge and intellect to the table, especially when it comes to this current topic. In addition to my time spent learning from Lauren, I realized that my passion for developing the youth athlete aligned with his.
Between his passion for youth sports and his obvious intellect, Lauren is going to be a game changer in youth sports for years to come.
So, without further ado, here is the first part of Lauren Green’s 3-part series…
3 Reasons Why Your Athlete Shouldn’t Specialize Early
Purpose: The intention of this series is to create awareness about the current negative trend in youth physical development, as well as promote the theory of early sampling and free play for young developing athletes. Exposing children to all of their abilities early on in the life cycle gives them the ability to truly see where they excel.
Based on data collected by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only 0.03% of high school basketball players go on to play the sport professionally. Similarly, a measly 0.08% of high school football players, 0.05% of high school baseball players, 0.07% of high school hockey players, and 0.09% of high school soccer players climb to the professional ranks (1). Yet, despite these staggering numbers, becoming a professional athlete is still one of the most dreamed of and sought after careers in America. Granted the average salary in the NBA is $4.5 million (2), the likelihood of an athlete making it to that level is the least of all sports.
Nonetheless, young athletes all over the country are willing to seek any advantage to see their dreams come true. Parents will spend countless amounts of money to ensure their child has the best instruction, plays for the best teams, and trains at the best facilities. While these parent’s efforts are noble, and generally come with the best of intentions, they may be sending their child the wrong message and steering them down a harmful path, developmentally speaking.
Understandably, wealth is one of the most alluring factors pulling kids (and parents, alike) toward a professional career in athletics. For example, the average salary in the NBA is $4.5 million (2), yet the likelihood of an athlete making it to that level is the least of all sports, with .03% of high school basketball players making it to this level.
The idea of selecting one sport or activity to focus on at an early age (prepubescent) is known as early specialization. While it is becoming more common with each passing year, early specialization has been linked to multiple physiological and psychological problems that can persist well beyond childhood. In some cases, early specialization can actually lower the likelihood of a young athlete’s success in their chosen sport. Notably, overuse injuries and incomplete motor development are the main physiological issues that accompany early specialization. Meanwhile, it is the mental state commonly known as “Burnout” that poses as one of the main psychological draw backs of early specialization, along with other aspects of social development. Each of these issues can individually affect the child throughout life, especially when they manifest themselves together. Early specialization can have long-term negative effects on the young athlete and should be discouraged in favor of early sampling.
Early specialization: selecting one sport or activity to focus on at an early age, at the exclusion of any other sports or activities
Early sampling: playing sports without focusing on one sport or activity at the exclusion of others.
Over this 3-part series, we will discuss three overwhelming reasons why children should not specialize in a sport at a young age:
- Motor Development,
- Emotional-Social Development, and
- Overuse Injuries
Each of the above topics is of great importance to a young child’s development, as both an athlete and a person in society.
1. Motor Development
In an age where media outlets are seemingly unavoidable, you hear stories from all over the globe of child prodigies that excel in athletics at a very young age, and not just making the jump to the professional ranks, but even having great success as professionals at ages that were previously unheard of. Take for example, athletes like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and Bryce Harper, who are glorified for their early development and success in their respective sports, leading parents to believe that if their child dedicates time to their given sport at an early age, they they too will have a chance at similar success. While there is plenty of research that supports the ideology of practice time reflecting skill acquisition, the same correlation between early sport specific focus (early specialization) and success in sports (reaching elite levels, career longevity) does not exist.
How many of you have ever caught yourself thinking, “If I practiced more, I might have been good enough to play in college or go pro.”? There is also the ever-common, “I would exercise more but I just don’t have enough time.”
Statements like these discredit the time, effort, and good fortune of genetics that go into the creation of one of these “prodigy players.” And please, don’t misunderstand the concept of time here – we need not forget absolute time (chronological), and relative time (training age). These unique and rare athletes can be equated to kids that graduate from Princeton at the age of 10 and become a MD at the age of 14 (I’m looking at you Doogie Howser, MD).
This is the 1% of the 0.05% that we are talking about; the perfect product of great genetics, the sharpest of motor development learning curves, advanced social-emotional development, and an environment that promoted the advancement in all of those qualities. No matter how much I work, I may never catch up to this rare population. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t work to develop and find the best and fastest path for me – the path that allows my social-emotional qualities to best fit my personality. The path in which I find the skill set that I am best suited for and use my overall abilities to compliment my greatest strengths.
Bryce Harper, Lebron James, Tiger Woods…These unique and rare athletes can be equated to kids that graduate from Princeton at the age of 10 and become a MD at the age of 14. They are the 1% of the 0.05%.
Instead of trying to turn your kid into the next LeBron James, why don’t we focus on working with what we have and making them the best version of themselves they can be?How do we know what we have until we test the waters? Your child can’t help their genetics and you can’t predict their athletic abilities.
Motor development is the process of changing and developing motor skills over time, and more specifically, throughout a life span. As a child is exposed to specific physical challenges and practices they will begin to develop the necessary motor skills to accomplish the tasks at hand. For example, baseball requires the athlete to catch a ball that is thrown or hit at them with a glove. The act of catching a projectile (a baseball) with an apparatus (a glove) requires specific motor skills such as: manual dexterity, proprioception, and the coordination of the two. As a child practices this challenge more and more, they will refine those skills and adapt to the challenge. Over time the athlete will be able to transfer this skill to other similar tasks.
A study done by Abernathy, Baker and Côté suggested that pattern recall exists in elite athletes of ball sports. In other words, when an athlete develops proficiency in a skill, they can transfer those patterns into another, similar skill or challenge. This transfer ability can allow for an athlete to learn new skills or adapt to new challenges in a shorter amount of time or with greater ease. Recent studies on the developmental histories of expert team ball sport players also suggest that experts characteristically receive exposure to a wide range of sports in their developing years and that this related sports experience may reduce the amount of sport-specific training needed to become an expert. In the case of early sampling, a young athlete who is exposed to multiple challenges and sports will have a greater chance of adapting the skill necessary for those sports and practicing them through a wide range of environments. If a child is limited to one sport through early specialization, they are limited in the avenues in which motor development may occur and transfer.
Experts characteristically receive exposure to a wide range of sports in their developing years and that this related sports experience may reduce the amount of sport-specific training needed to become an expert.
The roles of age and motivation also play a large role in an athlete’s motor development. Young children are much more likely to be involved in play versus practice. Practice is described as activity with the deliberate purpose of skill development, while play is use to describe activities that are undertaken primarily for enjoyment, but that may nevertheless ultimately contribute to the acquisition of expertise.
Young children are much more motivated to take on challenges and involve themselves in play that is fun to them and not seen as a daunting task. This atmosphere of motivation is known as a mastery motivational climate. Mastery motivation involves an emphasis on effort versus performance. Children who are in a mastery environment have a greater chance of acquiring skills compared to children who “play” in a performance environment. When children are involved in play they want to challenge themselves, as it is the challenge that creates the enjoyment. When a challenge is met, even the smallest task, it gives them the sense of accomplishment and the intrinsic motivation to take on a new challenge. Creating a mastery environment through a variety of play will lend the child to a greater motivation for skill acquisition and increase their positive outlook on new challenges.
You won’t know what your child is best at until they have sampled all of their abilities. As your child develops motor skills and neurological sharpening, they will eventually show you what they are made to specialization in. But, they won’t show you through athletic success. They will show you through how fast they gain competency in their physical abilities.
The concept of relative time through training age, represents the path your child takes into movement and skill literacy. If he/she excels at the skills involved with spatial awareness (i.e. field/court vision), close-space footwork (i.e. light on their feet), object implementation (i.e. ball, stick, bat); there is a good chance your child can do well in hockey, basketball, tennis, soccer, as well as other games.
Let your child explore their abilities and play all of the sports that their environment allows. Don’t worry what sport you, their parents played as a child. Don’t fret if you do not enjoy their chosen sports, or if you don’t know much about the game/sport – simply take the time to learn and love those sports with your child.
Stay tuned for Parts II and III of this series…
For more from Lauren Green, be sure to check him out on Twitter: @LGStrength