Demonizing Early Specialization – Flawed Research Interpretation
A generally-accepted tenet of youth sports training is to avoid early specialization – meaning that kids should have more unstructured play time and not get locked into a single sport at an early age. Trainers and pundits around the world have embraced this concept, demonizing parents and coaches who suggest that single-sport specialization might be a reasonable decision. Just take the Google search engine for a spin and see it for yourself.
Unfortunately, these claims, while well-meaning, have little to no basis in actual sports science research. Here are the two most common claims used in the case against early specialization:
Most Professional Athletes Played Multiple Sports
This argument is made by many trainers, and Elsbeth Vainbo is just one example of many. (I have no particular ill-will towards her; this article is just often cited by other writers.) In Does Early Specialization Help?, Elsbeth makes the following point:
Do the best of the best get there by playing only one sport? Or do they develop athleticism across multiple sports? I decided to run a little test: I took lists of the top 10 players in 2012 from the four major team sports in North America, and let Google help me to see what sports were in each of their backgrounds. For the sake of consistency, I went with lists compiled by ESPN. You may not agree with their list, but I felt it was best to go with a single source for top 10 lists for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL; and ESPN seemed the best option.
Would you believe me if I told you 7 out of 40? Only 18% of the top professional athletes were single-sport athletes. Or to look at it another way, 82% played multiple sports.
This is a pretty clearly fallacious argument for multiple reasons, but the best one is simply this: More athletes play multiple sports than those who play a single sport. No attempt to control for youth participation across sports was done, so this simple argument should be thrown out. It seems to make sense on the surface, but what if 90% of ALL youth athletes played multiple sports growing up? Would 7/40 be a good argument then? Clearly not.
Elsbeth also goes on to talk about the idea that early specialization may be harmful, but quotes no research, merely anecdotal stories. We’ll look to others for this.
Early Specialization Increases Injury Risk
The vast majority of studies that link single-sport specialization to increased injury risk did not control for number of games played or seasons participated in. In fact, what “early specialization” meant to these researchers was increased games played and participated in by an athlete – year-round soccer, baseball, basketball, and so forth. Instead of playing 20 games of basketball, 20 games of baseball, and 20 matches of swimming, an example athlete would play 60 games of basketball instead.
I have zero qualms with this claim and it’s almost certainly true that participating in increased competitive games in a single sport year-round leads to increased injury risk. The same holds true for baseball – perhaps especially so, considering pitching off a mound at a young age is a very risky activity and should be limited by pitches, innings, and months on the diamond.
However, this is NOT the same as talking about early specialization while LIMITING competitive participation! Consider the example youth athlete that plays 20 games of baseball and loves the game so much that he trains year-round for baseball in an appropriate way that does not risk the growth plates and connective tissue. Would the results be the same? A big league pitcher that works with me specialized in baseball at 12 years old but his father kept him out of competitive leagues for much of the year, having him take lessons with a local pitching coach and throwing long toss and doing drills during the week. He played no more competitive games of baseball than the average multi-sport athlete, but got significantly better through additional exposure and repetition of sport-specific drills. He went on to get a full scholarship at a college, get drafted in the first round, and pitch in the big leagues just a few years later.
No attempt to control for these cases was done, and equating additional games played with the fault of a single sport is the incorrect conclusion to draw.
Our Recommendation: Stop Demonizing Parents
Let me make it clear, lest I be misquoted: I do NOT believe that youth athletes should play competitive games year-round. However, forcing a youth athlete to play multiple sports when all he wants to do is play baseball simply because you heard it was a good idea from “research posts on the Internet” has no basis in reality. Youth athletes should be held out of competition for an appropriate amount of time per year, but off-season training can be provided to confer both general fitness and sport-specific fitness without increasing the injury rate to the athlete.
Demonizing parents whose kids want to play one sport is not fair and has little to no real support when it comes to peer-reviewed research. Unfortunately, much of the research out there has significant holes in it and journalists take the conclusions in the wrong direction, fitting the “research” to their predefined narrative.
Want to learn more about strength training as it relates to being a better pitcher? Read all of our articles relating to strength here.
Bingo. 11U son’s competitive season ended in the 2nd week of July. After many months of practice, house league play + 8 travel tournaments and district LL action we were all ready for a break: son, mom & dad and the dog too.
6 days later my son is horsing around with neighborhood friends in pickup games in backyards and when school starts I have to drag him away from watching the fall ball games his friends are playing so he can concentrate on school work. Its in his blood.
I would argue that 33 out of 40 PROFESSIONAL athletes were so athletic compared to their childhood peers that they were able to simply bounce from season to season without needing to specialize because they were such great athletes! When people use this argument against specialization I want to ask them if they have ever coached a kid who was a professional athlete during that players childhood. While I have yet to have that happen, I have coached kids who are headed to play college athletics and in every single case where I coached them in in more than one sport, they were the best player on the team, not because of specialization but simply due to athleticism.
Imagine the level of athleticism of someone who plays professional sports. This entire debate is like unto a straw-man argument in politics. This notion that the most elite athletes who play professional sports, play professional sports because they didn’t specialize at a young age. In every situation where I read this type of “research” I always feel like the author is either being disingenuous or ignorant of the role of athleticism in youth to pro. I have yet to read anything written where the premise of specialization being at the core of everything that is wrong with youth sports where I agreed.
stephen osterer -
I think you make a good point about the distinction between competing in sport and training for it – two different things. The problem in my eyes, however, lies in the fact that training year round for only one sport often does not follow an LTAD model. Exposing children to different sports and hitting the appropriate windows of optimal trainability is an important component to developing an athlete with a broad spectrum of movement competency, strategy and skill. I think you were conveying this idea when you said you can confer general and sport specific training in the off-season, but I am not sure that it is as widely understood in the general population. Any thoughts on implementing LTAD models into a baseball only development program?
What 12, 13, or 14 year old kid wants to play 20 games a year, and leave the rest of the year to training? They will get bored and frustrated. Playing Other sports are the mark of a well rounded athlete and can enhance the speed, strength, quickness, reaction, and general competitiveness of an athlete. How boring would our lives be if kids specialized at a young age? How many kids stop growing at 12 or 13? How many kids were better than others at certain sports because of their size? Lots of kids think Baseball is the greatest sport ever and they want to be a pro player when they are 12, but what if they have never played football, soccer, basketball, etc? No knows their best sport at 12. And the fact is the vast majority of kids want to be playing a sport throughout the year and it is parents and specialized coaches that want them to play year round. I know, I deal with it every day all year round. Kids’ excuse for specializing is they are worried about injury from another sport or not being good enough to play collegiate. 12-15 year kids don’t think like that. They want to be with their friends and compete. When they divide to quit a sport they do well in at they age, they generally are being pressured to do so by an adult. And it’s hard to blame the parent when they are spending thousands a year to specialize in what ever sport. When you do that you force the kids into an early decision. If a kid only played 20-30 games a year I would agree they don’t get burned out or injured, but most don’t. And still, you’re restricting the fun and opportunities in their life. A real athlete with compete. I talked to Jared Weaver 4 months ago and he said his baseball coach when he was 14 tried to get him to quite basketball and go straight baseball saying that’s what he needed to play next level. Jared said no. Not everyone is Jared Weaver, but most will not go professional or D1. These kids need to play multiple sports to get a better experience overall.
Driveline Baseball -
Hey Cullen, thanks for posting your viewpoint on this. We do agree with you that playing multiple sports can be a great experience for young athletes. We encourage most of our youth athletes to play other sports. This article is just pointing out that if an athlete decides to specialize at a young age, with guidance from his/her parents, that neither the athlete nor the parents should be ridiculed for it. Taking time away from playing games, to train strength and athleticism allows the athlete to set the cornerstones for future growth. This will be what they build off of for the rest of their careers. We also believe you don’t have to stop competing just because you are not playing in games. If you are tracking your workouts, you get to try to beat previous numbers while also seeing your improvement. We find that athletes at all levels really enjoy this kind of training environment, where they can compete with themselves and their peers. You can look at the baseball season as a test. In school, you wouldn’t test everyday. You would build up to the test with teachings and studying. Training is just that, leading up to the test, or season. For a quick look at how we train youth pitchers, check out this short article.