The question of "how to develop a successful athlete" is a question asked by many parents and coaches. The answer to that question, however, depends on whether one desires a successful youth athlete or an athlete who is trained and developed towards long term success. There is a big difference between training a young athlete to win the Little League World Series and developing an athlete who will be successful at the high school level and beyond.
Early Sport Specialization...
The idea that a young athlete should specialize in one single sport and train intensely in only that sport is termed "Early Sport Specializationz'. It is defined as youth under the age of 13 participating in one sport for more than 8 months out of the year and playing that sport to exclusion of free play or participating in another sport. The number of young children who specialized in a single sport is estimated to be at least 30% of youth athletes, and that number continues to grow steadily.
Why do parents want their kids to early sport specialize?
There are many reasons why coaches and parents tend to lead young children toward "committing" to a single sport. The concept of early specialized training began in the 1950s with the sudden breakout success of Soviet and Eastern Block Athletes. The Soviet Union debuted at the 1956 Winter Olympics and surprised the world by winning the most medals. The reason, said the Soviet Union, was their early and intense targeting and training of youth athletes in elite "sport schools". Although it was later determined that the success of the Soviet athletes was due primarily to doping, the United States recruited many of the Soviet coaches to defect and began emulating the concept of early identification and training of promising athletes.
The 10,000 Hour Rule, which was a concept introduced to hypothesize why early age commitment and deliberate practice was necessary to achieve elite musical talent, has been extrapolated to athletics. Although significant time and commitment is obviously necessary to achieve sport excellence, two studies looking at elite wrestlers (6,000 hours) and elite basketball and field hockey athletes (4,000 hours) demonstrate that athletes can achieve excellence with much less than 10,000 hours of practice. The concept that athletes even need to begin training as youth has been questioned by study of the Australian Olympic Team. When evaluating the 1996 and 2000 Australian Olympic Teams, it was found that 28% of athletes achieved elite status within 4 years of starting their chosen sport, and 69% reached elite status after only 7.5 years of training.
The phenomenon of Tiger Woods has probably done more to encourage parents and coaches to push for early sport specialization than any other factor. Tiger, who began golfing at age 2 and was coached by his father, became the youngest ever U.S. Junior Champion at age 15, has won 18 major championships, and has over $1.3 Billion in lifetime earnings. Athletes like Tiger Woods, Missy Franklin (swimming), Michael Phelps, Wayne Gretzky, and LeBron James who achieve sudden, astronomical success give parents and coaches the idea that young athlete development and success is the norm, instead of the exception. Interestingly, the quick rise and fall of Tiger Woods and Missy Franklin mirrors data on the Russian Swim Federation that showed that athletes who began specializing in swimming after age 12 had much longer careers than those who began specialized at age 8-9.
There are examples in the literature supporting early specialization. Athletes who participate in women's gymnastics and women's figure skating, which are sports where athletes reach their peak at early maturity, benefit from early specialization. Additionally, kids who specialize early and enjoy youth success can develop confidence and a positive attitude. The best youth athletes also have access to the best coaches and the best teams, which reinforces for parents the idea that their children need to commit and achieve early success if they are going to thrive and succeed in the current competitive sport system.
Multiple-Sport Participation & Athlete Success
The literature, however, overwhelmingly supports the idea that multiple sport athletes achieve athletic success at a rate much greater than early single sport specializers. For context, roughly 2% of high school athletes will compete at the college level, and only 0.1-0.2% will compete at the professional level.
- In a study of 376 Division I female athletes, 83% participated in multiple sports in high school.
- Another study looked at the competitive sport history of over 300 athletes who participated for the United States Olympic Team from the years 200-2012. When the athletes were between the ages of 10-14, they participated in 3 sports on average. Even athletes ages 15-18 still participated in an average of 2.2 sports.
- The 2016 NFL Draft class provides a striking example of the success of the multiple sport athlete. Of the 253 NFL draftees, 224 of them (or 88.5%), were multiple sport athletes in high school.
Fortunately, many coaches are now singing the praises of multiple sport athletes. Multiple sport athletes have a broader range of motor skills, and recently Ohio State Football Coach Urban Meyer announced that he specifically recruits multiple sport athletes because he believes they become better football players.
The literature is just as clear about the risk of burnout and injury for single sport athletes. Being a student athlete is a very difficult task. Balancing schoolwork, training and competition can be difficult for even the smartest, most balanced athlete. Young athletes do not always have the proper coping strategies to deal with physical and emotional stress, and are much more prone to burnout. Burnout, which can manifest as lack of sport enjoyment, depression, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, poor grades, and loss of self confidence occurs at a much greater rate in athletes who are specialized before age 12. Given the obesity epidemic in the United States and the benefits of sport participation, every effort needs to be made to keep kids involved in sport. Currently, 70-80% of children drop out of sport by age 13, citing hyper-competitiveness and burnout as leading reasons.
Specializing in Sport and Rate of Injury & Burnout
Injury is an unfortunate complication of sport participation. Over 3.5 million sport injuries occur each year in children under age 14, and the majority occur during practice or as a result of overuse. Children are not little adults, and thus cannot handle rigorous training the same way as an adult. When evaluating the data on single sport specialization and injury, the results are clear, as multiple studies have demonstrated the increased injury risk associated with early single sport specialization. In a study of 1214 youth athletes, predictors of injury were single sport specialization and hours of practice per week more than age in years.
- In a study of 546 female athletes, single sport athletes had a 4 times greater risk of developing overuse knee injuries than multiple sport athletes. Another study of of single sport athletes who participated in one sport for more than 8 months per year were more likely to sustain an overuse hip or knee injury than multiple sport athletes.
The data on early sport specialization are clear:
Early single sport specializers....
- Have a higher burnout and drop out rate from sport
- Have less intrinsic sport enjoyment
- Experience higher injury rates
- Have shortened playing careers
- Have a smaller range of motor skills
- Are less physically active into adulthood
With the exception of women's gymnastics and skating, successful athletes participate in multiple sports well into their high school years. To develop healthy, successful athletes, parents should encourage their young athletes to explore a range of physical activities and sports. In the long run, this diversification of sport benefits our young, developing athletes as well as the whole athletic community of Flagstaff.
- AOSSM Early Sport Specialization Consensus Statement. Orthop J Sports Med. 2016 Apr 28;4(4): eCollection 2016.
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- Baker J. Sport-Specific practice and the development of expert decision-making in team sports. J Applied Sport Psychology. 2003:15;12-15
- Côte J. ISSP Position Position Stand: To Sample or To Specialize? Seven postulates about Youth Sport that Lead to Continued Participation and Elite Performance. Int J Sport Exercise Psych. 2009;7: 7-17
- Fraser-Thomas, et al. Examining adolescent sport dropout and prolonged engagement from a developmental perspective. J Appl Sport Psychol. 2008;20:318-33
- DiFiori J. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. 2014;24:3-20
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- Malina RM. Early sports Specialization: roots, effectiveness, risks. Curt Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(6);364-371
- USOC Report: The Formula for Developing Elite Athletes. teamusa.org. Dec 2014.
- Multisport athletes dominate first round of 2016 NFL Draft. USA Football. 4/29/2016