Early Sport Specialization: Why This Needs to Stop (with a capital "S")

Here in northern Virginia, and in other hub-bub places too, it's not uncommon for an athlete to play a sport during the high school season, and then transition straight into the club season (which lasts f-o-r-e-v-e-r), leaving the athlete with maybe 2-3 weeks rest before try-outs for the next year's high school season start. Does this sound familiar? Does this sound healthy? Today we're going to address a growing (alarmingly so) problem with youth athletics: early sport specialization. As a strength coach, I see some messed up kids when it comes to movements, joint integrity, and muscle tissue quality (all = poop) who play year-round sports at young ages (that is, under 16-17 years old). I see year-round volleyball players who can't do a simple medicine ball side throw. Why? Because they spend ALL YEAR moving in the saggital (forward/backward) plane with a little bit of the frontal plane (side to side shuffling, but even that is dominated by their inability to actually move sideways; they tend to fall forward and/or move as if they're running forward, just facing a little bit to the side.) They have limited movement landscape (remember this?) and therefore are limited athletes.

I see young baseball players with chronic elbow or shoulder pain. Why? Because they throw a ball the same way ALL YEAR ROUND. And they're not strong enough to produce the force needed to throw it properly, (because, heaven forbid, they take some time off to actually weight train and get stronger) so they rely on their passive restraints (ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules) to throw.

This topic gets me fired up because I see SO MANY injuries and painful joints in kids who shouldn't have injuries or painful joints. I see kids who can't move like a normal human being because they're locked up and, worse, don't even have the mind-body connection to create movements other than those directly related to their chosen sport.

There's this pervasive myth that if a kid doesn't play year round or get 10,000 hours of practice, then he/she will never be a good athlete. Parents get caught up in chasing scholarships and by golly, if Jonny doesn't play travel ball he'll fall behind, then he won't make varsity, then he won't get into a good college... and on and on. My friends, we need to take a step back and think about what's best for the athlete. Do the aforementioned afflictions sound good to you?

But enough of my opinion, let's look at some hard science to support the Stop-Early-Specialization-Theory.

Playing multiple sports and playing just for the sake of running around like a kid builds a rich, diverse motor landscape, especially during the years before late adolescence. Diversifying the motor landscape, or movement map, or the bag-o-skillz, or whatever you want to call it, is essential to human development and especially valuable to athletes. I'm going to sound like a broken record, but kids need a broad and varied map to:

1. Understand how to move their bodies through space

2. Create and learn new movements

3. Learn how to adapt to their environment

4. Develop better decision making and pattern recognition based on their circumstances (i.e. being able to find the "open" players in a basketball game helps in finding one on the soccer field. )

Matter fact, this really smart fellow, Dr. John DeFirio MD, who is the President of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine and Non-Operative Orthopaedics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Team Physician for the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (that's quite the title, eh?) says this:

"With the exception of select sports such as gymnastics in which the elite competitors are very young, the best data we have would suggest that the odds of achieving elite levels with this method [early sport specialization] are exceedingly poor. In fact, some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages"

And, Dr. DiFiori encourages youth attempt to a variety of sports and activities. He says this allows children to discover sports that they enjoy participating in, and offers them the opportunity to develop a broader array of motor skills. In addition, this may have the added benefit of limiting overuse injury and burnout.

You can read his full article here. The article also notes two studies in which NCAA Division 1 athletes and Olympic athletes were surveyed regarding what they did as children. Guess what? 88% of the NCAA athletes played 2-3 sports as kids, and 70% of them didn't specialize until after age 12. The Olympians also all averaged 2 sports as kids  Are you picking up what he's putting down? Specialization doesn't make great athletes, diversification does!

Side bar: Check out Abby McCollum, who played 4 sports for a Division 1 school. The article says that she was recruited last minute... probably because she was such a great all-around athlete that she could play any sport.

Next up: injuries rates.

Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, a sports medicine physician, in conjunction with Loyola University published a few studies using a sample set of 1,026 athletes between ages 8-18 who came into the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago for either sports physicals or treatment for sports-related injuries. The study ran from 2010 to 2013.  Dr. Jayanthi and her collegues recorded 859 injuries, of which 564 of them were overuse injuries (that's well over HALF). Of those 564 injuries, 139 of them were serious injuries concerning stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligaments or injuries to the cartilage. All of these injuries are debilitating and can side line and athlete for 6 months or more. The broad study is reviewed here and a more specific cohort (back injuries, which carry into later in life) is here. I highly recommend reading both as the data are eye opening.

To sum up Dr. Jayahthi and co.'s recommendations on preventing overuse injuries (I took it directly from one of the articles in case you don't have time to read them both):

• If there's pain in a high-risk area such as the lower back, elbow or shoulder, the athlete should take one day off. If pain persists, take one week off. (though I think it should be more)

• If symptoms last longer than two weeks, the athlete should be evaluated by a sports medicine physician. (and go get some strength training! There's a reason that pain is occurring; something is overworking for something else that's NOT working.)

• In racket sports, athletes should evaluate their form and strokes to limit extending their backs regularly by more than a small amount (20 degrees). (this should also apply to any overhead sport like volleyball, baseball, softball, etc.)

Enroll in a structured injury-prevention program taught by qualified professionals. (hey, like SAPT? Lack of strength is a common denominator among injured athletes.)

• Do not spend more hours per week than your age playing sports. (Younger children are developmentally immature and may be less able to tolerate physical stress.) (10 year-olds don't need 12 hours or soccer! Also check out Dr. Jayahthi's injury prediction formula.)

• Do not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as you spend in gym and unorganized play. (Kids, go play tag, get on the playground, play capture the flag, anything; JUST PLAY!)

• Do not specialize in one sport before late adolescence.

Do not play sports competitively year round. Take a break from competition for one-to-three months each year (not necessarily consecutively).

Take at least one day off per week from training in sports.

The highlights and comments are mine. Do you see the RISK involved in specializing in a sport early in life? Not only does the risk of injury skyrocket, and the ability to move fluidly and easily plummet, but there's a lot of external pressure on the athlete to perform. Stressed athletes don't perform well. I don't know how many times I've asked my year-round players what they're doing on the weekends, it's always "tournament" or "practice." They have NO LIFE outside of sports. To me, that seems unhealthy and frankly, a recipe for burn-out.

Parents, athletes, and coaches, in light of all this research, I urge you to strongly reconsider year-round playing time for kids under 16 or 17. I urge you to allow athletes time off, to play other sports besides they're favorite, and to just be a kid. I urge you to keep the long-term development of our athletes in mind; do you want to risk a permanent injury, hatred of sport (because of burn out), or development of weird compensations and movement patterns?

Let's build strong, robust athletes that can do well in the short- and long-term instead of pigeon-holing them into a particular sport and limiting their athletic potential.