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.
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