3 Reasons Why Your Athlete Shouldn’t Specialize Early – Part II (Guest Post by Lauren Green, Brooklyn Nets)

Note from the editor:

Since sharing the first part of this incredibly well-thought out and written piece with us, Coach Lauren Green (formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization) has taken a new position, now working as an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach with the Brooklyn Nets organization. Even though Lauren has spent considerable time working in the professional ranks, in baseball and now most recently in the NBA, he maintains a great passion for youth athletics.

Today Coach Green shares with us Part II of his, “3 Reasons Why Your Athlete Shouldn’t Specialize Early” series. If you haven’t already, check out Part I here

Enjoy!

Introduction

“How did they get so good?” This is the question we all ask ourselves and our coaches about the skills professional athletes possess. And the answer is always, “lots of practice and hard work!”.

The idea is perpetuated constantly: you can learn and do anything you set your mind to with hard work and perseverance. Throughout time, history and science has shown this to be true. Natural abilities can start us at a certain point of relative success but mastery comes with experience. But which experiences and practices are necessary for expertise? Or does it even matter?

Some will say that the key is in the amount, do anything long enough with focus and you will figure it out. Personally, I find that to be misguided, inefficient and foolish.  Obviously I believe in the search of mastery through skill development, or I would have been a geneticist instead of a coach. But I firmly believe that there is a progression for development and work load.

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Many of us have heard about the “10,000 hours or 10-year rule”. This is based on the research done by K. Anders Ericsson during his development of the deliberate practice framework. It is very simple in theory, the longer a person dedicates time to deliberate practice of a skill, the more time they have to get better and reach a higher level of expertise.

It is the global idea of hard work put into a nice pretty scientific presentation. And I love it! Scientific thought giving support to what coaches have preached for years. This is also one of, if not the only, pillars of early specialization: the need to accumulate hours of practice necessary to reach mastery of the sport. The only problem is the 10,000 hours rule is not universal. Ericsson’s research was based on elite level violinist and their recollection of how many hours practiced to that point in their lives.

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These 10,000 hours were accumulated over more than a decade and included free play, lessons, listening to music, and reading/writing music. What the study actually revealed was that the highest level players had a higher level of interest in skill acquisition of music, as they played much more unaccompanied/self-practice hours than their lesser skilled counterparts.

When applying this theory to sports, we need to take a step back and reassess what we are actually looking at. The generalization of the rule can become dangerous when applied to athletics, especially when applied to youth athletes.

It is important to remember that sports themselves are an accumulation of multiple motor skills and most ground-based power sports are testing these skills at high rates of speed and variable forces. Young athletes are just developing the motor skills needed to move correctly let alone learn how to apply those movements to sport specific skills and perform them in open practice.

The violinist in Ericsson’s research did not start by playing 10 hours per day rehearsing Beethoven’s violin concerto. They began with short bouts of practice with simple notes and chords and progressed into longer pieces. When we apply this idea of accumulating long hours of practice on young developing bodies, we are exposing them to much greater harm than benefit.

Overuse Injuries

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As a parent or coach, the child’s immediate AND long term health should always be a priority. Injury is the one of the most common reasons for adolescents withdrawing from a competitive sport (1). One of the most researched topics that disputes the efficacy of early specialization is the possible occurrence of overuse injuries.

Overuse injuries occur as a result of overtraining, insufficient rest, chronic stress from repetitive movements, joint stress from improper movement patterns, and muscle weakness or imbalance. Approximately 30 million children and teenagers participate in organized sports each year in the United States (2).

Sports are the leading cause of injuries in adolescents and an estimated half of them are preventable (3) (4). Granted some of the injuries are due to ill-fitting equipment, most of the injuries are from improper technique, muscular weakness/imbalance, and training errors.

Although the adolescent body can be very resilient due to its highly adaptive state, it is that same developmental state that makes it vulnerable to overuse injuries. Often time’s coaches of youth teams are not educated in proper training principles and practices, furthermore most coaches are volunteers with no traditional education in training youth athletes. It is very common for these coaches to rely on training practices that they were subjected to as youth or mimicking training seen at the professional levels in an effort to give them an edge.

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How many times have you heard, “This is what the pros do. If it’s good enough for them, it must be good for us!” This can be dangerous for youth athletes as their bodies are not developed and do not adapt to exercise the same as adults.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) youth athletes may be involved in resistance training only under the supervision of properly trained coaches, with equipment that allows for appropriate resistance that will not hinder proper movement patterns or cause unnecessary stress to their joints (5).

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Adolescents have not been shown to have the same muscular adaptation to resistance or cardiovascular training as adults. With that said, they have been shown to improve neuromuscular control and efficiency from resistance training. Knowing this should lead parents and coaches to focus on motor development, as this will show the greatest benefit and create the safest environment for the athlete (5) (6).

Learning proper posture and movement patterns are essential to the development of a young athlete. Throughout their development, children and adolescents will undergo growth spurts in which the growth pattern of their bones will not coincide with the growth of their muscular and ligamentous tissue. The imbalance in tension will leave those soft tissues vulnerable to overt stress from external forces and “creep” (the passive lengthening of a muscle or tendon into plastic deformation) (2).

Some sports such as baseball, golf, and even volleyball can lead to specific asymmetries in posture and joint mobility. These asymmetries can be harmful in both the development of movement patterns and joint function, especially when exposed to high volumes of these repeated sport specific motions. For example, a right handed baseball pitcher will throw a baseball anywhere between 50-100 times in a practice session. Each of those movements requires the athlete the start in a lateral stance with his right arm and leg behind him, and push himself into a linear stance with his right leg to transfer his force forward and accelerate his right arm forward to throw the ball.

As his energy shifts forward, the force is applied to his left leg, eccentrically loading the left hamstring. With this action repeated time and time again on a daily basis, the athlete will adapt and conform to the forces placed upon him. The is a very good chance he will develop a pelvis that is shifted laterally to the right with an anterior tilt due to his overdeveloped right gluteal muscles and elongated left hamstring. This imbalance in pelvic stance can lead to postural issues, lower limb tightness and irritation (Tensor Fascia Latae or Iliotibial Band), or even lumbar spine irritation; all due to the muscular imbalance created through a repeated motion that is inherent within the sport.

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Those muscular imbalances and joint dysfunction are only amplified by the increased volume of competition that comes along with early specialization. One of the proven benefits of early specialization is that it lends itself to many more hours of sport specific skill development. Athletes that want to become better within their age group, neglecting long term development, will benefit greatly from early specialization (7).

But, with the increase in practice and competition hours comes the wear and tear of high volume. Young bodies that are still in a developmental stage are much more likely to succumb to overuse injuries (8). A young athlete that is involved in early sampling, or has a higher amount of unorganized play, will have less likelihood of seeing these overuse injuries and becoming more well-rounded in their movement patterns and motor development (9).

Even if an athlete does have some overt external stress applied to soft tissues, such as tendons or ligaments, the active rest and recover involved in activity away from the specific mechanism that caused the stress, should allow for some regeneration of that tissue without having to completely shut down from activity or cause further damage by repeating the stressor (10).

Conclusion

When talking to or planning for your youth athlete it is important to think from a relative perspective. Think from a “one size does not fit all” perspective. What seems easy for you is most likely difficult or at least challenging for your youth athlete. It is important to always look at what is equitable and not equal practice for your athletes. Just because Steph Curry has a 100 shot and 30 minute pre game routine does not mean your 10-year old should be doing the same.

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The routine was an entire practice session for young Steph at one point. The key is to look at the approach instead of the specific work. What you really see Steph Curry doing is practicing game specific skills for 30 minutes of his 2.5-hour pregame routine. This means he is spending 1/5th or 20% of his pregame routine practicing game skills. To put this in perspective, don’t think your child needs 1 hour to match Steph’s hour. In reality he could spend 10-12 minutes of his/her pre-competition activities on specific skill work and have done equitable work to Steph.

The most important thing to remember when addressing overuse injuries in youth athletes is that more does not mean better and understanding that you can compartmentalize skill. This means that your 8-year-old does not need to throw 300 pitches per week to get better at pitching. In fact, he or she can improve their pitching by practicing the motor skills involved in the pitching action. Single leg balance, rotational patterns, contralateral coordination, hand dexterity, shoulder dynamic stability and many other motor skills/patterns are all involved in baseball pitching.

Your child can have numerous things to practice that will improve the desired sport skill, but without the constant exposure to gross sport patterns that will expose weak links in motor skills and increase accumulated stress in that chain. Also, these skills are transferable to other sports, activities, and basic life functions (11). They are not only practicing for baseball, but to be better athletes overall.

It is true, we all get better with practice. The more practice we are involved in, the more likely we are to become more proficient in that setting. But when it comes to Long term athlete development, remember that there can be negative effects of doing too much too fast. Focus on how you can build your young athletes skills in fun and varying environments without breaking them down physically. Look at how you can be deliberate in practicing motor skills that will influence sports skills. You will see that the variety is endless and will have no problem finding skills to practice that will benefit the athlete with a much lower risk of injury. You will find that your athletes will get to their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in a much more fun and safe route by focusing on the motor skills instead of the sport specific skills.

References

1. Withdrawls From Competitive Youth Sport: A Retrospective Ten-Year Study. Butcher, Janice, Lindner, Koenraad J and Johns, David P. 2, 2002, Journal of Sport Behavior, Vol. 25, pp. 145-163.

2. Overview of Injuries in The Young Athlete. Adirim, TA and Cheng, TL. 2003, Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 33, pp. 75-81.

3. Risk Factors for Injury in Child And Adolescent Sport: A Systematic Review of The Literature. Emery, CA. 2003, CLinical Journal of Sport Medicine, Vol. 13, pp. 256-268.

4. U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine. Youth Sports Injuries. [Online] November 15, 2005. https://chppm-www.apgea.army.mil/documents/youthsportsinjuriesfs.pdf.

5. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Faigenbaum, Avery D, et al. 5, 2009, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol. 23, pp. S60-S79.

6. Resistance Training Among Young Athletes: Safety, Efficacy and Injury Prevention Effects. Faigenbaum, A D and Myer, G D. 2010, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 44, pp. 56-63.

7. Early Specialization in Youth Sports: A requirment For Expertise? Baker, Joseph. 1, 2003, High Ability Studies, Vol. 14, pp. 85-94.

8. Childhood and Adolescent Sports-Related Overuse Injuries. Cassas, Kyle J and Cassettari-Wayhs, Amelia. 6, 2006, American Family Physician, Vol. 73, pp. 1014-1022.

9. Tenenbaum, Gershon and Eklund, Robert C. Handbook of Sport Psychology. s.l. : John Wiley & Sons, 2007.

10. Weintraub, William. The Nature of Tendons and Ligaments. Tendon & Ligament Healing: A New Approach to Sports and Overuse Injury. s.l. : Paradigm Publications, 2003, pp. 11-50.

11. Transfer of pattern recall skills may contribute to the development of sport expertise. Abernathy, Bruce, Baker, Joseph and Côté, Jean. 6, 2005, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 19, pp. 705-718.

12. National Collegiate Athletic Associaton. Probability of Competing Beyond High School. NCAA.org. [Online] September 24, 2013. http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Probability-of-going-pro-methodology_Update2013.pdf.

13. Gaines, Cork. CHART: NBA Tops All Sports Leagues With Highest Average Salary For Players. Business Insider Magazine. [Online] April 7, 2014. [Cited: August 22, 2014.] http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-nba-average-salary-2014-4.

14. What Is Motor Development? The Lesson of History. Clark, Jane E and Whitall, Jill. 1989, Quest, Vol. 41, pp. 183-202.

15. Sport-Specific Practice and the Development of Expert Decision-Making in Team Ball Sports. Baker, Joseph, Côté, Jean and Abernathy, Bruce. 1, 2003, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Vol. 15, pp. 12-25.

16. Motivational Climate, Psychological Responses, and Motor Skill Development in Children’s Sport: A Field-Based Intervention Study. Theeboom, Marc, De Knop, Paul and Weiss, Maureen R. 1995, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Vol. 17, pp. 294-311.

17. Athlete Burnout: A Physiological Perspective. Cureton, Kirk J. 2009, Journal of Intercollegiate Sports, Vol. 2, pp. 31-34.

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