Early Specialization: Are We Missing The Real Problem?

Chances are you’ve probably heard people talk about early specialization and how it is detrimental for today’s young athletes. You might have a similar opinion to the aforementioned topic, but what if I told you that you are probably directing the blame in the wrong direction? How could it possibly be? How could early specialization be beneficial at all when all you keep hearing is how bad it is for children? I ask you this one question: Why is it specifically “bad” for children? What are the actual reasons behind it? If you believe that early specialization leads to overuse injuries and burnout, then I will challenge your thought with this article.

            For those of you that may not be familiar with this topic, early specialization is the term used to describe when a child, or his/her parents decides that he/she will only begin to focus on playing one sport, usually in an attempt to increase the skill level in hopes of achieving a high level of competition. Generally it is noticed early on when a child is gifted with special abilities in a sport, and in today’s world sports are a great way to get a child into an otherwise unaffordable/unattainable prep school or college. Because it has always been about getting that great education, right? In some people’s minds, specialization is the first step in becoming a professional athlete.

            The number one piece of evidence against early specialization is related to something called “overuse injuries”, which are supported by copious amounts of scholarly articles and educational research. However, what if I proposed that these instead might be referred to as under-recovered injuries, or even asymmetrical growth injuries? Would that change people’s attitudes?

            As a strength and conditioning coach it is my job to make sure that I have my athletes prepared for their respective seasons and that their strength and movement patterns will not only provide a vehicle to success, but also aid in the prevention of injury. After all, what good is a 500lb squat if that athlete moves poorly and then tears an ACL on the field of play?

            Training for and playing sports naturally create imbalances in the body. These may lead to poor movement patterns that often go unaddressed. Thus, it is not the fact that an athlete got injured because he/she plays basketball too much, it is because of the fact that the athlete moves poorly and is generally weak throughout certain ranges of motion. Most non-contact injuries should be avoidable with a quality strength program that brings symmetry and balance back to the musculature in the body.

            So if you’re still reading this you’re either really interested in what I have to say or you’re wondering what the hell my point is. If you’re thinking “wait, is he suggesting that we introduce young children to strength and conditioning?” then yes, you are correct. That is exactly what I am suggesting. And before we open another can of worms, for those of you that are imagining a seven year old attempting clean and jerks and being screamed at by drill sergeants, just stop right there. Quality strength and conditioning no longer follows the mantra of the 70’s and 80’s football/military style training. There are plenty of ways to train young athletes without putting them in unnecessary danger.

            Proper strength and conditioning will allow for correct movement patterns and the removal of any muscular deficiencies. Take baseball for example. A young athlete will most likely only bat from one side of the plate and almost exclusively throw with one hand. As a result, that athlete will develop asymmetries on one side of his/her body as the musculature on one side is used more often than the ones that compliment them on the other side of the body. Thus, a quality program would have to combat these deficiencies and help recreate symmetry throughout the muscles, joints, and soft tissue.

            Now ask yourself, how many kids do you see on a properly periodized program with respect to their sport? Save for those with parents in the industry, the answer is probably almost none. Most sport performance facilities have a general program with very little to no actual periodization or progressions for younger children, never mind anything that is sport specific. If we are going to change the demands of the children playing the sport, then we need to change the demands of how we train those kids for the sport.

            To address the point that early specialization will cause burnout, I will briefly say this, as I could probably write another paper on that alone. The choice of sport should be left up to the athlete. If Johnny is a freak hockey play and knows that he is better than everyone and wants to play hockey all year, the he should be allowed to. If Johnny also likes to play baseball in the spring, then he should be allowed to. Too often parents are the ones that pressure kids into playing just one sport. So yes, obviously if a child is forced into specialization at a young age, he/she will most likely burn out somewhere down the line. But if they are the ones who choose it, then the odds are higher that they will stick with it. And if Johnny decides on his 14th birthday that he wants to quit hockey and try out for the water polo team, then so be it.

            Furthermore, if you want a child to take a break for a season, what better way to convince then than by introducing them to a way to get better at their sport and stay healthier? Taking a season off to focus on training and recovery will most likely be easier to sell than telling a kid that they need to play a sport they have no interest in.

            The world of sports is changing, and its time strength and conditioning professionals adapt to the reality instead of trying to take the easy way out and pass the blame.