Early Sports Specialization Phenomenon

A study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences looked directly at the youth sports specialization issue. The study found that young athletes who competed in three sports at ages 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at an elite national level in their preferred sport than those who specialized in only one sport at the ages of 11, 13, and 15.

Why is this the case?

Emphasis on playing for select youth (10-15yrs) teams or winning games and tournaments may actually deter your child’s athletic development for the following reasons:

  1. 1)  Athletic development doesn’t occur during games, because players are often afraid to take chances or try new skills because a mistake may cost the team the game or a spot on the bench. In training, players have a chance to be creative, try new moves, and take risks. Soccer players in Europe and South America are often more skilled than those produced by our soccer system is that their programs emphasize training, skill development, and creativity, and focus less on playing game after game after game, tournament after tournament. A good analogy would be if your child’s math teacher were to limit actual teaching to one day out of the week and give tests the other four days.
  2. 2)  Playing on select teams or travel programs who are all about winning, creates an environment where player development often becomes secondary to the goal of winning. With the coach playing the “best” players in order to win. I’m all for fostering competition both in games and practices. But if you kid is sitting on the bench they are not developing their skills or gaining confidence. Furthermore, at the youth age level it is impossible to tell which kids will physically develop as they mature. You should not sacrifice long term goals or development for short term success. What makes an elite athlete great at the varsity, collegiate, and pro levels is very different then what makes a kid succeed in youth sporting leagues.
  3. 3)  Some studies suggest that sports specialization may actually lead to reduced motor skill development. Focusing on the motor skills needed for their sport but ignoring the motor skills developed through participation in multiple sports will reduce athletic development. For example, a child playing baseball will learn hand eye coordination but it will do little to teach the athlete proper footwork or agility.Early Sport Specialization can be Detrimental

Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.

A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.

Overuse Injury: In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports!

Side note: want to know the fastest way to slow development in a youth athlete? It’s getting injured, and missing out on play, pick-up games, practice at a time when coordination and physical qualities are developing at a rapid pace as the youth athlete goes through puberty.

Burnout: Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment

Reduced Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence. I’m sure everybody has witnessed an athlete that was just good at every sport they tried, from ping pong to football. I can almost guarantee that this athlete had played a variety of sports for fun/play as part of recess, gym, and recreation. When an athlete has a played a variety of games/sports, they have a large sample size of experiences to pull from to execute a maneuver. Fun games like tag, dodgeball, kickball, and Frisbee all have carry over to competitive sports like football, soccer, basketball, baseball. Again, the more movement skills the athlete has experienced the less they need to physically learn when playing a sport.

Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.

Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child

10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball

(4000), field hockey (4000) and wrestling (6000) all require far less than 10,000 hours. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one, deliberate practice. That, he says, is wrong.

Free Play Equals More Play: Early specialization ignores the importance of deliberate play/free play. Researchers found that activities which are intrinsically motivating, maximize fun and provide enjoyment are incredibly important. These are termed deliberate play (as opposed to deliberate practice, which are activities motivated by the goal of performance enhancement and not enjoyment). Deliberate play increases motor skills, emotional ability, and creativity. Children allowed deliberate play also tend spend more time engaged in a sport than athletes in structured training with a coach.

There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

Parenting and Youth Sports

Many parents feel tremendous pressure from youth coaches, other parents, and finances, to pick a sport and stick with it. So, what is a parent to do when confronted with statistics like these and a child that only wants to play a single sport?

If your child is young, say under the age of 13, most experts believe it is crucial to participate in more than one sport. When I get parents of 8 year olds who tell me “My son only likes soccer,” I say “how do you know, what else has he done?” Maybe he has never tried basketball, or he tried and had a bad coach or bad teammates. Do not be afraid to try again, because playing basketball can help him become a better soccer player through increased agility, balance, coordination and pattern awareness.

The more sports a child is introduced to, the better chance he has of finding the one he is passionate about, taking ownership of it, and becoming a high-performer in it. There is nothing wrong with a parent of a young athlete asking their child to try something, and if it does not work out, then so be it. The problem with early specialization is that many kids who have only played a single sport, at age 13 or so, say “I want to try something else.”

If your child wants to play at the next level (and you want them to), would it not be better to have a multi sport athlete decide to specialize in high school, instead of a one sport athlete who then decides to play multiple sports in high school? That is why athletes should diversify early. Explain to them how it helps them in their sport of choice. You will develop a better all around athlete, and potentially help a child appreciate his first sport, his coach and his team even more.

A young child certainly does not need to participate in elite level competition in multiple sports. Far too many well intentioned parents, in trying to ensure their child is not a single sport specialist, turn him into a multi-sport specialist, with swimming at 6am, soccer at 4pm and basketball at 7pm. I think one organized sport per season, especially for kids 10 and under (an age I selected, not researched based) is entirely appropriate. Remember overuse is the number one cause of injury in youth athletics. And injury is the fastest way to make an athlete less athletic.

By late middle school and high school (again, my opinion), I think many athletes are mature enough, educated enough, and capable of having high aspirations and ambitions in a singular sport, and thus may choose to participate in only one organized sport. They may have jobs, significant others, musical or artistic pursuits, or a social life that only allows time for one high level sport. I think it is important that coaches, athletic directors, and parents ask these kids what their goals and ambitions are, instead of trying to determine them for them.

This does not mean these athletes should not be encouraged to pursue other athletic interests in a casual, fun ways. Free play is a way to refresh the body and mind from high level competition. High school level sports are hard and a timely commitment, and are not for every athlete. We can

respect their decision to only play one sport while helping them periodize their specialty sport training.

People point to the Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s of the soccer world as examples of people who only played soccer from a young age. This may be true, but they ignore three crucial points:

  •   Many of Ronaldo and Messi’s early hours in the game consisted of free, deliberate play. In free play, kids play multiple positions, and focus solely upon the enjoyment and fun of the sport. They are allowed to be creative, play fearlessly, and rely solely upon themselves for the motivation to pursue the sport. This is exactly the opposite of structured, organized training with a long term goal in mind, and has been scientifically shown to yield better overall athleticism.
  •   Messi, Ronaldo and other high level soccer players were brought into the youth setup of very high level soccer organizations at a young age. These clubs, such as La Masia at FC Barcelona, have dozens of full time staff attending to the needs of only 300 athletes. They have coaches, physicians, physiologists, nutritionists, chefs, psychologists, academic tutors, and more. Every need is attended to, from proper training to medical attention to school to nutrition to rest. We have nothing similar in the United States, so to argue that we just need better educated coaches and then kids can specialize, because they do overseas, is comparing apples to oranges.
  •   There are a huge number of professional athletes that were multiple sport participants growing up. I recently read Ethan Skolnick and Dr. Andrea Corn’s Raising Your Game: Over 100 Accomplished Athletes Help You Guide Your Girls and Boys Through Sports, which interviews over current and former professional athletes, from Lebron James to Steve Nash to Brett Hull. The common link: they all played multiple sports. I high recommend this book if you are on the fence on this subject, as it will give you a lot of reassurance that multi-sport participation and elite performance are not mutually exclusive.


Here are 6 ways adults take the enjoyment out of sports:
1. Parents coaching from the sideline: When I travel and speak at schools and sports organizations, I often talk to the athletes. When asked, “what would you like your parents to say on the sidelines during your games?” 99% of those kids respond immediately with a resounding “NOTHING!” No athlete has ever told me “I love when my parents tell me what to do” or “it’s great when my dad yells at the referee.”

Here is the funny thing, though. When I ask audiences of parents “what do your kids want you to say on the sideline” they immediately respond “NOTHING!” as well. They know what their kids want, but here is the kicker. I ask “but what are you going to do this weekend at your kid’s’ games?” The answer for many parents, as we all know, is yell instructions, disrespect the officials, collectively groan when kids make mistakes, and pretty much do exactly the opposite of what our kids want. The next time you see a player turn to the sideline and yell “shut up, I got it” you should probably take their advice. Watch this video and you’ll understand what I mean.

2. Yelling instructions while the ball is rolling: Any adult giving instruction to a player involved in the play, under pressure, and trying to make the decisions that the game requires, is confusing. It is also scientifically proven to diminish performance (see the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman for more on this). As my friend Tom Statham, who has coached in the Manchester United youth set up for over 20 years, is fond of saying, “we don’t coach when the ball is rolling.” Let players make decisions and let them learn from both the good and bad ones. Every time we solve a problem for a player in a game we delay learning. It’s better to ask after the play “where could you have been on that play” than to tell a kid to pinch in, get rid of it, or my favorite, “SHOOT!” If a teacher gave your kids the answers to the math test, they would get a good result, and learn nothing, right? That’s what many coaches and parents do in sports.

3. Disrespecting officials: We teach our kids to respect authority figures, from teachers to parents to coaches and yes, referees and officials. Then as soon as that official makes a disagreeable call, we lose the plot. We yell, scream, lose our cool, and then wonder why kids do the same. We ride an official and then admonish a player who gets a card or technical foul for dissent. It is especially confusing to a kid when the official object of the adults’ scorn is only a few years older than he or she is. Next time you see parents screaming at a 12-year-old linesman, look at the reactions of the kids on the field. Please, be consistent in what we ask our kids because they will do not as you say, but as you do.

4. Parents questioning the coach: When parents question coaching decisions, player positions, playing time, tactics, and more, they undermine a coach’s authority, and the players respect for that coach. You teach your kids to question everything a coach tells them, and this makes them indecisive come game time. It also takes their focus off things they can control, like their attitude, their effort, and their focus, and turns it towards uncontrollable like coaching decisions. Yes, your child might have a coach that sees things differently than you do, but so what? If you really know that much more than the coach, you should coach. If you do not have the time or energy to do so, then be thankful someone does and support that person.

5. Commenting on Their Teammates’ Play: An athlete’s teammates are very likely their friends as well. When a parent tries to make her daughter feel better by saying “I don’t know why Jenny always gets to play forward instead of you, she gives the ball away too much” it is very uncomfortable for her child. When a coach makes disparaging comments on the bench about a player on the field, when you put your substitutes in, the only thing they are thinking is “what is he saying about me right now?” You are talking behind the back of their friend and you are destroying the critical trust that teammates need in each other and their coach. Keep your thoughts to yourself.

6. Making the ride home/post game talk a “teachable moment:” Ah yes, the ride home, kids’ least favorite memory in sports. Every time I ask a room full of student athletes to tell me about the ride home, the collective eye roll is enough to cause a small earthquake. Most kids tell me that they don’t mind some feedback from mom and dad (if

they actually know what they are talking about) but very few actually like it on the ride home.

The feeling is mutual about criticism from an angry coach immediately after a tough loss. Kids feel post-game speeches are often focused on what was wrong, and not what went right. They are emotionally and physically exhausted, and they just want to get onto the next thing. If you think about it, there is not much that has to be said immediately after a game that cannot be said before the next practice, or in the hotel that night, when the emotional component has eased.

What should parents do about it?

There is an easy solution to this, believe it or not. Ready for it?



Why should you ask these question? Because it works! If you don’t think so, ask yourself “why do kids play so many hours of video games?” It’s because the video game makers ask kids what will make you play more, and then they give it to them! It’s because they take user input and make the next version better than the last by implementing user suggestions. If parents and coaches took a moment to ask their athletes “what could we do more of so you would want to play more,” and then we implemented some of their suggestions, great things would happen. Kids would take ownership of the experience. Parents would let their kids go, and show respect to their kids, the coaches, and the officials. Coaches would have teams full of more self-motivated, hardworking, and fearless players. We would return more joy to sports, and that sounds pretty good to me.