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Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Problems of Early Sports Specialization


Introduction: 
PSA: Sorry for the hiatus, got a little caught up in finishing my semester. But, let's take it back to a tweet from just after this year's NFL Draft that this article idea stems from (right). Although I wasn't surprised that most of these guys were multi-sport athletes in high school, 91% is amazing. People hear in the news about the Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, college basketball players turned NFL superstars, but people may forget that a lot of the professional athletes (if not most) used to grow up playing all kinds of sports and developing a multitude of skills.

In today's age of sport where AAU, travel baseball, and 7 on 7 football dominate and compete for each other's time, the adults manning these competitions may need to step back and analyze what will benefit the kids the most and if these events are helping or hurting not only sports but the athletes themselves. Let's first define sport specialization as playing/training only one specific sport all year long for multiple years starting at a young age. More statistics about specialized and pro-athletes? Sure! High school athletes (who did not go on to play professional or in college) in 2017 specialized 2 years earlier than their college and professional predecessors; challenging the notion that to be an elite athlete requires one to specialize in one sport at a young age (Buckley et al., 2017). Let's dive into the bulk of why kids don't need to specialize in a selected sport at such young age (or maybe more importantly why parents don't need to specialize their kids in a certain sport) to become an "elite athlete" and the risks of said sport specialization on their physical and mental development.

What's the gamble?
First of all, 98% of the population will "go pro in something other than sports" as the NCAA commercial used to say. So, whether you're a chance-taker or a gambler, the odds are in no one's favor and the consideration of sports specialization may be illogical.

Origin of Specialization: 
Where does this idea of specialization come from? In 1993, K. Anders Ericsson (1993) published an article stating that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at that said skill and voila the "10,000 Hour Rule" made its way into sports performance, and unfortunately youth sports. Let's just debunk this right away, training 10,000 hours is not an indicator of becoming an elite athlete. This rule fails to incorporate the adolescent body undergoing rapid changes leading to potential injury risks. In essence it is just a constant high-volume, intense, one-dimensional training strategy that is incorporated into youth training. That doesn't sound very safe, does it?

Physical and Motor Development:
In regard to youth physical development, sport specialization has been researched to limit the variation of motor development and decrease involvement in activities that promote lifelong fitness and well-being (Normand, Wolfe, Peak, 2017). Specifically, motor learning in youth (<15 years old) occurs through the continual process of trial and error, task variability, and building and refining new motor programs (pre-movement processing in the brain that enables/helps you perform tasks) in multiple environments. Therefore, the combination of multiple tasks (sports) in different environments (playing surfaces and activities) and trial and error (learning new sports/drills) seems to be the best route to developing motor learning in the youth. The development of multiple refined motor programs and overall improved motor development may be a cause for an increased overall athletic ability. Physically, sport specialization has been linked to the controversial term "overuse training". Is overuse training real/not real in adults/athletes? Probably depends who you are reading or what 'bro' you ask at the gym; but, that's for another discussion. Is this a problem for kids? YES, we need to worry about this constant training due to their rapid growth and constant muscular, neurological, and hormonal changes. A lack of recovery or periodization of training can negatively impact the development of these features. Fast-forward years and years to kids that did or did not specialize and relate it to injury: Researchers discovered that from a group of NBA first round draft picks from 2008 to 2015, those who were multi-sport athletes in high-school played in a greater percentage of total games, were less likely to sustain a major injury during their career and a played in the NBA longer (Rugg, Kadoor, Feeley, & Pandya, 2018) . Although this does not prove cause-effect, the demographic evidence indicates that sport-specialization may lead to a higher injury risk, whether it happens as a kid or later on in their careers.

Mental Development:
Sport specialization has also been found to be detrimental to psychological health in youth athletes as well. No, I don't believe in giving everyone a participation award, but I do believe research and when youth athletes specialize (especially if it is a parental decision), there is an added stress to become an "elite player" leading to higher rates of attrition and inappropriate expectations often defined by parents. Again, not everyone should get a medal, but I think parents adding illogical stress to children's lives at such a young age is wrong and ill-advised.

Conclusion:
In multi-sport participation, athletes will develop a surplus of skills not otherwise learned training for one sport, train different muscle patterns, decrease 'burnout', and honestly probably have more fun.
Overall, choosing to specialize, or not specialize, in a youth sport is up to the individual at hand and each situation is unique, obviously. However, all parents, coaches, and especially the athletes should be informed at the risks of not only injury but development of skill, strength, and power as well as  overall training periodization to prevent overuse. Youth sports should be fun for the athletes, let them be active, boost some adrenaline, be happy, and appreciate what sports can give back. Let kids be kids. 





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