Early Specialization: Revisited

    Okay, so it’s been almost exactly one year since I last wrote about early specialization. You can check out the original article here and check out the one specifically focused on injuries and how to prevent them here. Now recently, I had an epiphany about early specialization. The topic was brought up and some things were clarified to me that I had mistaken previously. And because that’s just the kind of humble, integritous, and fortuitous guy I am, I will admit to a mistake.

    To clarify, I had always been classifying early specialization as something that began around 10-12 years old (I work predominantly with HS athletes, so 10-12 was considered early). I was later informed that early specialization actually is considered starting age 6 and younger. So before you go roasting me saying, “you can’t just change your stance!” relax. Because I’m not changing anything. I still support specialization beginning sometime around age 12. Just not as young as 6 and under. So yes, if you read my older articles I do believe that we should still have 12 year olds in the gym following a properly periodized strength and conditioning program. I’m simply just trying to eliminate the nuances.

    From 0-6 years old we are beginning to learn movement in its most basic form. We learn how to walk, run, jump, climb, etc. This is a very elementary form of movement education. Hence why in elementary school the gym programs involve mostly just moving and running (in places in the universe where gym even still exists) and why also elementary schools subscribe to this awesome thing called recess. This is the time to cover broad spectrums of movement patterns, learn how the body works in space and pickup many different skills.

    An exception to this rule would be sports like gymnastics and swimming. This is because the peaking age for competition is very young (14-18 years old) so an early start is a must. No one is going to start gymnastics at 15 and then make it to the Olympics. If your child doesn’t start specializing in either of those sports by age 6, then they won’t have a future as a serious competitor in the sport. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Olympics. What is the average age of a national gymnastics team? 16, 17, 18 (maybe 11 for the Chinese team)? And the same goes with swimmers. Take a look at all of the biggest names at the past few Games: Katie Ledecki, Missy Franklin, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Shawn Johnson, even Michael Phelps made the Olympics at 15, and got his first gold medal at 19.

    So moving on to the ages of 6-12, this is when we begin to build some structure in competition. There might be some pickup games of basketball, soccer, football, etc. But it’s just usually a bunch of friends playing together at the local playground. No real rules, referees, or consequences. This is the age when either the athlete or the parents starts to notice talent and potential in a sport.

    By the time we get to 12-16 years old, we should have a pretty good idea where our talents lie, and begin to specialize. It takes about 10 years to achieve mastery level at something, so if we really have our child’s future in mind we would want them to hit mastery around 22-26, not 28-32. With specialization also comes structured periodization in regards to training. This will help prevent injuries and create more balance and structure in the body. At the latest, a talented athlete should be specialized in one or two sports by age 16.

    If we truly want our athletes to be successful, then they need to start specializing earlier than college. The amount of time it takes to reach greatness just won’t allow for maximum effectiveness if started at a later age. So maybe what I have been pushing for isn’t “true” early specialization, but I still support specializing earlier than most people would like to accept. Early specialization is okay, as long as it is done correctly with regard to training regimens and proper rest and recovery. We have until about age 12 to determine where the strengths of an athlete lie, and should make the specialization decisions then.

    Injuries and burnout can be avoided with good coaching, strength and conditioning, and always allowing the children to make the final decision on playing sports. If you can’t follow my ramblings, check out this video from Dr. Mike Israetel on his views of early specialization. We have somewhat similar views, and he is a little more animated than I am.

    There will be another article coming soon that goes along with this, discussing why High School athletics have it all wrong. Stay tuned.