The Rise of Specialization in Youth Sports

(Part 1 of 2)

Nobody uses the word specialization to describe their child’s youth sports participation. Even as widespread as the practice is today, the term itself seems to have negative connotations.

We would prefer to talk about how our children are dedicated or committed to a sport, words that bring to mind a certain level of passion, focus and eminent success. Specialization seems too mechanical, too limiting, as if we are confining a child rather than helping them to reach potential. Yet in youth sports, that’s exactly what is happening. As part of this series on causes for concern, let’s take a look at the idea of specialization. What is it? Where did it come from? What are the affects and should we be concerned?

When we speak about specialization, we’re referring to an individual committing almost exclusively to a single sport or activity. Early specialization (our primary focus here) refers to taking this path at a young age, usually before a child reaches his or her 15th birthday. This includes many hours of practices, games and individual or team related activities each week, almost every day of the week. During the height of a season, a child on this path will likely spend 6 days a week on his or her sport — more days than most adults work. By its very nature, this requires an amount of commitment that prohibits the child from participating in other extracurricular activities throughout the year. There simply isn’t the time.

I should also be clear about common sports practices that are not specialization. Any child who plays a sport for only a few months a year, no matter how often they practice during that time or how “elite” that team is, probably isn’t specializing. Being an “elite” athlete and specializing are not the same thing, though too often elite athletes feel pressure to specialize and a great many do. I should also note that plenty of children who will never be “elite” athletes also specialize. Traveling, for example, is a characteristic of most teams on which a child can specialize, but so called “travel teams” aren’t exclusive to specialized athletes. To this point, specialization is a term that refers to the individual, not the team.

Sometimes it is a coach who dictates that children on his or her team commit exclusively to a sport, putting pressure on parents and children. Often it is parents who decide a child should commit exclusively to a sport.

Very rarely is it the child who pushes this path on their own, as children are more likely to want to explore a variety of different activities.

The key is that it is a decision. Most often, it’s a decision made with the belief or expectation that this specialized focus and year-round participation will result in superior athletic skills for the child. Further, it’s often a decision made with an eye toward competing at the high school and college levels, if not professionally. So does it work? We will seek that answer soon enough. First let’s take a look at where the phenomenon came from.

The idea of athlete specialization as we know it goes back some decades, though it’s popular practice in youth sports is a more recent phenomenon. The idea that the world’s best athletes focused on their craft dates back to the origins of competitive sport, but full-time specialization is comparatively young. Not a century ago the great Jim Thorpe famously starred (professionally) in track, football, baseball and even basketball(1). He is often considered one of the greatest athletes of the modern world; though not all athletes of his time were skilled in so many disciplines, those who could compete in multiple sports did so if only to make a decent living.

Only as professional sports became more serious business did teams begin to protect their investment by restricting star athletes to a single sport. Even then, this only occurred professionally. Before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, he gained fame as a four sports star in college at UCLA, excelling in not only baseball but also track and field, basketball, and football, where he played both offense and defense(2). Younger generations will remember names like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who managed to play both baseball and football even as professionals as late as the 1990’s. To that time it was still a common practice for elite athletes to participate in multiple sports through their entire amateur career. Today, it’s uncommon to hear about a two-sport college athlete and the professional version is all but extinct. High school is heading that direction. Just two years after Sanders retired from sports in 2001, a highly talented high school wide receiver from the state of Ohio dropped football to specialize in basketball, despite some insisting he could be a legend on the gridiron. While that’s worked out pretty well for LeBron James, it represents a now common example of high school athletes since the turn of the 21st century. If the story stopped there perhaps we would have little to concern ourselves with, but it continues to skew younger.

At the same time, other forces were working on youth sports. By the mid 1990’s, college sports were considered a massive business. With the enticement of college scholarship dollars having been a driving force in youth sports participation since the 1960’s(3), it made sense that if colleges began recruiting to individual sports then parents would feel the need to focus solely on those sports to improve their child’s chances. During the same time, participation in high school sports increased significantly and created more competition for those spots. This has been especially true for girls. According to data from the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) in their annual surveys, while total participation in high school sports remained basically stable during the 1980’s, it grew 26% during the 1990’s and 47% from 1990 to today(4). This amounts to nearly 2.5 million more kids playing high school sports. For girls the numbers are even more dramatic, with participation increasing 72% over the past 25 years and nearly 1.4 million more girls participating today than in 1990. These are great statistics to be sure — we want more kids participating — but the reality is that this growth has also fueled competition for spots on the roster. What was once a competition for college scholarships has turned into a competition for high school roster spots. The theory goes that the children must specialize even younger to have a shot.

So why is this a concern? There are a variety of risks associated with the lifestyle and types of participation that sports specialization requires. I would like to break these risks down into 3 categories: the injury epidemic, the mental or emotional toll on the children involved, and the affect on social behaviors. But lets start by taking a look at whether or not specialization actually accomplishes its desired affect. That is, do children who specialize actually become better athletes? Does it increase their chances of earning a high school roster spot or college scholarship?

The short answer is that for the vast majority of sports activities, specializing at an early age (less than 15 years old) has been shown to have no demonstrative affect on the athlete’s ability to compete at higher levels of competition.

Think about that statement for a moment. Parents spend thousands of dollars, families spend hours upon hours of time, and children devote themselves exclusively to one activity (outside school) as many as 6 days a week. I’m telling you that studies have shown little to no correlation to a long-term athletic benefit on this path. That seems pretty significant. Now let’s dive deeper.

If early specialization in sports is to achieve its desired results, we would expect to see more children who specialize early participating in high school and college sports. Data presented in April 2014 at the meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine “showed that varsity athletes at U.C.L.A. — many with full scholarships — specialized on average at age 15.4, whereas U.C.L.A. undergrads who played sports in high school, but did not make the intercollegiate level, specialized at 14.2.(5)” This seems to suggest that kids who played more sports early and waited until high school to specialize actually had a better chance of playing in college. Indeed, another study of female college athletes concluded the same thing: for the majority of college sports, the median age at which a child began specializing was at least 14 years old, though they had been playing multiple sports since at least 9 years old(6). A third study of youth sports found no evidence to support early sports specialization in any sport but gymnastics(7) and another study of German olympic athletes reported that “on average, the Olympians had participated in two other sports during childhood before or parallel to their main sport.(8)”

A trend begins to become clear, as each major study that has been done has come to the conclusion that with few exceptions, there is no athletic benefit to specializing before the age of 15.

Rather, they conclude, the child is physically benefited from participating in a diverse set of activities prior to this age. To be fair, we alluded to a couple of sports where early specialization does appear to be key to athletic performance. The best example of this is gymnastics, where research suggests that early specialization may be key primarily because the peak age of elite gymnasts is much earlier than other sports. Swimming is another that seems to have some benefits from more participation at an early age. Otherwise, there’s no physical benefit derived from specializing in one sport and excluding others. Certainly not in any of the popular American team sports.

There is a theory that has recently gained popularity as a way to explain the need for specialization. I’m speaking of the “10,000 hours” theory made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers (2011). This research showed that “experts” in various fields had accumulated 10,000 hours practice before a certain point, much more than their less successful counterparts. Under this theory, one would have to begin practicing their craft by age 5 and no later in order to get in 10,000 hours by 20 years old — about 2 hours per day. Gladwell points to everyone from The Beatles to Bill Gates to support this theory, which does seem to have merit in a variety of disciplines (it’s a good read if you’re interested). The problem is that Gladwell himself indicates his theory is centered on “cognitively demanding activities” and isn’t a study of sport, where a child’s physical development plays a huge role in whether early specialization has any benefit(9). To that point, former Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein debunked this theory in relation to sports as part of his book The Sports Gene (2014). That book notably studies many popular theories as to what makes an elite athlete successful. Like the studies above, Epstein refutes the suggestion that early specialization is required for athletic success. Instead, he largely argues on the side that genetics plays the largest role.

Now what about the risks of early specialization? I will address this in three areas: injury risk, emotional/mental concerns, and social behavior…

(You can read more about this topic in Part 2 coming soon!)

(1) New York Times Obituaries. Jim Thorpe is Dead on West Coast at 54.
(2) UCLA Bruins Athletics. November 21, 2014.
(3) Levey Friedman, Hilary. When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood? The Atlantic. September 13, 2013. January 28, 2015.
(4) National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). 2013–2014 High School Athletes Participation Survey. Released October 30, 2014. January 29, 2015.
(5) Epstein, David. Sports Should be Child’s Play. The New York Times. June 10, 2014. January 29, 2015.
(6) Malina, Robert M. Early Sports Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks. Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. November/December 2010. Accessed January 29, 2015.
(7) Neeru Jayanthi, MD, Courtney Pinkham, BS, Lara Dugas, PhD, Brittany Patrick, MPH, and Cynthia LaBella, MD. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health. May 2013. Accessed January 29, 2015.
(8) DiFiori, John M.D. “Early Sports Participation: A Prescription for Success?” Presentation to Annual Meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. April 18, 2013. January 29, 2015.
(9) Leveson, Eric. Malcolm Gladwell Defends Disputed ‘10,000 Hours’ Rule. The Wire. August 22, 2013. January 30, 2015.

Peter Piscitello

Executive Director, CYO

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