Early Specialisation- Friend or Foe?
As anyone who is apart of Youth Sport, Strength and Conditioning Coaches first hand witness the all year round sport specialisation saga. Regardless of our role in the overall picture- parent, sport coach, talent scout, we all have seen or head stories of kids as young as 8 years old playing a seasonal sport all year round to "get ahead of their competition" and spending up to 20 hours per week on training, on top of school and studies. Early sports specialisation is related to chidden which is defined as an intense and specific focus on one sport at the exclusion of others .
To some, the belief of focusing purely on one sport and excluding others will increase the likelihood of success. To others, engaging in a year round focus on one sport or activity can lead to negative effects on physical and physiological health.
It seems to be the norm placed on kids from parents, sport coaches and many S&C coaches. It's apart of modern day coaching. Ask yourself are you, your child, or athletes involved in the following?
- Participating in only one sport.
- Participating in the sport more than 8 months of the year.
- Not participating in other sports or activities (strength training, speed training etc) .
Then you are specialising.
Sport specialisation has a strong correlation (and I've seen it over and over again) in burnout, social isolation, often high drop out rates and long term negative association to sport. Stress is load on the body. Stress can be in form of athlete expectations, performance, coach/ parent pressures etc.
Adding this external load (stress) on top already specific physical load of the sport is a recipe for detrimental issues. Overuse injuries from repetitive movements (ie throwing, kicking) are responsible for 46-50% of all injuries in High School Athletes .
In a perfect world, single sport specialisation should be delayed to middle to late adolescence. But what if parents or coaches are pushing for a single sport? Is it all bad? Parents are heavily responsible for the involvement in single sport, but athletes are internally driven and they want to be the next Lebron James. How can we help these kids? Specialisation is the reality for millions of kids.
Picture: Arguably the greatest NBA player and athlete of all time played several seasons High School Football.
Enter Strength Training; or should preface smart Strength Training.
As as Strength Coach I've been at times stuck in the middle of these conversations with parents and sport coaches. For me, it's been about communicating my message. Johnny doesn't need to train to be a Soccer Athlete, he needs to train like an Athlete. He needs to work on aspects of physical development that are and are not present in the sport. And guess what, he's probably going to get better on the Football Pitch.
He doesn't need a sport specific program.
The Window of Adaptation is so large with a young training age. Exposing Johny to a wide variety of ground based, multi joint movements- Low Hanging Fruit, allows him to build resilience and develop robustness- with to goal to minimise injury risk and build confidence- knowing he can learn and implement new skills while adding controlled stress to the body. Once a solid foundation is built, we can then layer movement variability and more specific movements.
If you are a good communicator, you should be able to explain an athlete why a Goblet Squat will help performance, to a parent why it will help minimise injury risk and to a sport coach how it will help the athlete perform a particular movement or skill. If kids can't experience the wide breadth of scenarios in sport, we can help provide that in the gym setting from a physical and phycological standpoint to help reduce the gaps in learning and development.
How does this affect me?
If you are a Parent- think about exposing younger athletes to other sports or seeking a qualified Strength and Conditioning coach.
If you are a Sport Coach- understanding that implementing skills outside of the sport will help develop better athletes overall and aid in preventing boredom and burnout.
1. Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D. and Micheli, L.J., 2015. Sport specialization, part I: does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes?. Sports Health, 7(5), pp.437-442. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1941738115598747
2. Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D. and Micheli, L.J., 2015. Sport specialization, part I: does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes?. Sports Health, 7, pp.437-442. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1941738115598747
3. Brenner, J.S., 2016. Sports specialization and intensive training in young athletes. Pediatrics, 138, p.e20162148. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/3/e20162148.abstract