Early sport specialization vs diversification in youth athletes

YANNICK

Master student in human kinetic

The level of competitiveness in youth sports is on the rise, causing more competitive events at younger ages, specified training, and sport specification for individuals (2). Seasons are longer than ever before and parents are encouraged to sign their children up for organized club sports which play year-round. Although more children are playing sports, it appears that the multisport athlete is becoming a thing of the past (4). This raises the question: is early sport specialization or sport diversification better for developing youth athletes?

The arguments for early specialization have been made regarding expertise in skill development. The “10-year rule”, also known as the “10000 hours’ rule”, emphasizes the importance of early specialization(2). This rule was first brought up in the early 1990’s, when a team of psychologists in Berlin were studying violin students. They came to the conclusion that a violin player needed 10000 hours of practice in order to be an expert. Utilizing this theory, it can be concluded that in order for athletes to be the best at a particular skill or sport, they need to start early with skill development and practice very specific activities to improve their skills. However, it is important to note that this rule has never been validated on athletes. In an effort to make sure a child is ready for structured practice, certain developmental components should be considered. For instance, fundamental motor skill development should be trained to achieve success in the sport setting, including skills such as running, jumping, kicking, and throwing. If a child has an immature level of fundamental skill development, they may attempt to play organized sport but the experience may not be as positive. With this being said, although focusing on one sport develops the skills, coordination, and sport-specific fitness necessary for doing well in that sport in the short term, it limits or prevents the development of other transferable sport skills (3-5).

Another key factor to take into consideration is the fact that children are continuously growing. Constant changes in bodyweight, height, and muscle mass from training can provide additional stress to joints and connective tissue. These children are then more prone to overuse injuries, especially when the intensity level and training volume increases (2-4).

Lastly, early specialization has shown to be difficult, not only physically but mentally as well. Athletic burnout can be an unfortunate effect of early specialization surrounding one sport. Burnout can become so severe that it can cause withdrawal or dropout from the activities that were previously enjoyable to the athlete.

Sport Diversification
The sport diversification method exposes children to a multitude of sports, with a focus on playing instead of practicing. The belief behind sport diversification is that physical and cognitive abilities may develop quicker via playing multiple sports, instead of just one, because of a potential crossover effect from the diversity in the playing environment. A transfer in fundamental cognitive skills can occur [in specialization], but it is likely dependent on the degree of perceptual and information processing similarity between the different sports. The ability of a player to “read the game”, or understand player movement and pattern configurations with proper visual cues will likely have a higher rate of crossover if the athlete is participating in sports with similar pattern configurations (3-5). Here are other interesting benefits identified by Côté (2009) on early diversification, it:
1. Does not hinder participation in sports in which peak performance is reached after maturation.
2. Is linked to a longer sport career.
3. Promotes positive youth development.
4. Promotes intrinsic motivation through involvement in enjoyable activities.
5. Establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences
6. Children should have the opportunity either to specialize in their favorite sport or to continue in sport at a recreational level.
7. Late adolescents have developed the physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills needed for investing their efforts into highly specialized training in one sport (1).

Many professional athletes have shown the benefits of sport diversification. Names like Tom Brady (NFL), Dan Marino (NFL), Tom Glavine (MLB), Michael Jordan (NBA) and Matt Moulson (NHL) are just a few of professional athletes who either played or were drafted in multiple professional sports. Early involvement in sports provides opportunities to develop gross motor skills that include, but are not limited to, hand-eye coordination, jumping, throwing, hopping, balancing, and running. Diversification in sports at an early age has the potential to provide stimuli so that a child’s body can adapt and develop multiple motor skills that may crossover between sports. However, only once the mental, physical, and social aspects of a child are fully developed can specialization be considered. There are some exceptions to this, like gymnastic and figure skating, in which early specialization is necessary for future excellence. In these sports, complex movement and sport skills should be acquired before the onset of the adolescent growth spurt. As mentors, the most beneficial method is to allow the children to choose the sports they are passionate about, this way they are less likely to experience burnout or overuse injuries while setting themselves up for a better chance of becoming a well-rounded elite athlete.

Tom Brady (NFL) – was drafted in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft by the Montreal Expos
Dan Marino (NFL) – was drafted in the 4th round of the 1979 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals
Tom Glavine (MLB) – was drafted in the 4th round of the 1984 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings *** he was drafted before Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, both 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees
Michael Jordan – briefly played as an outfielder in Class AA team for the Chicago White Sox after his first retirement from the NBA.
Matt Moulson – was drafted in the 4th round of the 2003 National Lacrosse League Draft by the Rochester Knighthawks

Written by Yannick Laflamme, BPHE and master candidate in human kinetic

References:
1) Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). To Sample or to Specialize? Seven Postulates About Youth Sport Activities that Leads to Continued Participation and Elite Performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 9:7-17.
2) Difiori, J., Benjamin, H., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G., & Luke, A (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 24(1):3-20.
3) Hensch, L (2006). Specialization or diversification in youth sport? Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators. 19(5):21-27.
4) Johnson, J (2008). Overuse injuries in young athletes: Cause and prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 30(2): 27-31.
5) Oliver, J., Lloyd, R., & Meyers, R (2011). Training elite child athletes: Promoting welfare and well-being. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 33(4): 73-79.

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