Specializing or Sampling?

The ongoing debate over kids and sports specialization continues

It’s hard to determine where the ’10,000-hour rule’—the idea that becoming an expert, or world-class in any field, requires 10,000 hours of practice—originated. Some attribute it to pop writer Malcolm Gladwell, others to Swedish doctor Anders Ericsson.

But professionals across many fields agree on one thing—the rule wasn’t intended to describe a healthy attitude towards youth sports. Yet that’s what some kids are doing in 2018—practicing and playing a particular sport, like soccer, basketball, or baseball to the point of exhaustion in the hopes of procuring an elusive college scholarship, and at the neglect of any other activities, including other sports.

The arguments in favor of ‘sampling’—playing multiple sports throughout the year—are numerous. Most recently, an infographic has circulated showing that 29 of the 32 first-round draft picks in the National Football League’s April draft were multisport athletes in high school. But that’s a very small sample size, and when you’re talking about someone with the athletic ability to get drafted by the NFL in the first round, that person is likely to have the athletic ability to succeed in just about any sport at a high school level.

But what about the kid who just wants the best possible chance to make his/her high school team, or maybe has aspirations at playing at some level in college? What are the cases for and against specialization?

Arguments for Specialization

It’s certainly easier, both within the medical community and elsewhere, to find arguments against kids specializing in one sport than finding arguments in favor. But there are advantages to early specialization. And there’s no arguing that the trend isn’t increasing. Just read your Facebook feed and find a friend posting about an 8U travel tournament, or drive by the local rec center on any winter weekend and you’ll find gymnasiums full of elementary school hoopsters hoping to become the next LeBron.

A 2013 study found almost 78 percent of high school athletic directors reporting an increase in sports specialization. The likelihood increases with age—while 70 percent of U.S. Tennis Association players were specialists at age 10, the number reached 95 percent by age 14.

So the million-dollar question becomes: does it work? For individual-based, Olympic sports such as figure skating and gymnastics, the decision has largely been taken out of the hands of parents and athletes. With athletes ages 16—and sometimes younger—qualifying for the most elite levels of this sport, an athlete who waits until age 12, or even 10, to begin a more intense training regimen, may find themselves hopelessly behind their peers.

If a team of group has a specific goal—say, a state championship or other honors within their sport—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that extended specialization can improve cohesion and development of sport-specific skills. Of course, it’s essential to separate the goals of your child from the goals or an organization.

Finally, exclusivity and specialization likely increases the amount of time spent around every aspect of that activity, and it stands to reason this would mean greater exposure to high-level coaching, instruction and access to the college coaches that can offer those elusive scholarships.

Arguments against Specialization

Again, however, the tendency to look to the most elite players of a particular sport can unfairly tarnish this argument. For the kid whose goal is to make the high school soccer team someday, or the girl who endeavors to compete in swimming at some level for as long as possible, evidence suggests that early diversification is the path to success. A survey of almost 400 Division 1 female athletes found that only 17 percent had previously participated exclusively in their current sport. Furthermore, a study of high-level athletes found the greater diversity of activities the athlete experienced, the less sport-specific practice was necessary to achieve expertise in the sport they’d ultimately choose.

Of course, separate from any concerns about skill development or anything specific to competition is the perceived increase in injury to youth athletes who specialize in a single sport. This is specifically worrisome in baseball, where despite increased emphasis on pitch count, youth hurlers are throwing numerous innings for multiple teams each week.

A study released last year led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin suggested that athletes who specialize in one sport were twice as likely to report a lower-extremity injury than those who do not specialize.

“While we have long believed that sport specialization by high school athletes leads to an increased risk of overuse injury, this study confirms those beliefs about the potential risks of sport specialization,” said Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “Coaches, parents and student-athletes need to be aware of the injury risks involved with an overemphasis in a single sport.”

Of course, lower-extremity injury figures say nothing about those baseball-specific pitching concerns, nor do they account for the logical conclusion that an athlete who ‘specializes’ in a sport would naturally spend more hours practicing/playing sports, thus increasing the chances of injury by mere probability.

For the record, athletes who responded to the study were deemed to be ‘specialists’ if they answered “yes” to four or more of the following questions:

  • Do you train more than 75 percent of the time in your primary sport?
  • Do you train to improve skill and miss time with friends as a result?
  • Have you quit another sport to focus on one sport?
  • Do you consider your primary sport more important than your other sports?
  • Do you regularly travel out of state for your primary sport?
  • Do you train more than eight months a year in your primary sport?

The overwhelming majority of attention on specialized athletic has been negative, but it seems more specifics are needed. More to the point, specializing at an early age (before 13 years old) seems to have little effect on long-term performance in team-based sports. Many organizations, such as USA Hockey teams, have taken this into account, encouraging youth athletes to partake in a wide variety of activities up until age 10, begin ‘sampling’ or playing numerous sports (albeit perhaps fewer than before age 10) around age 11, with an increased specialization/investment in their specific sport around age 14.

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