Early Specialization for Youth Athletes? Think Again!

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by MICHAEL ZWEIFEL

Early Specialization for Youth Athletes? Think Again!

Early specialization is not the way to go for your child, and you need to use caution when those coaches or other parents come telling you little Billy needs to play AAU ball for this “elite” team or that “select” team.
Do you want your child to be the best?

To obtain that grand scholarship?

To become a superstar professional athlete?

Then you better start specializing your child ASAP, right?

You need 10,000 hours to become a master in a certain field, so it only makes sense to focus on one sport as soon as possible, right?

Look at Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, and Mozart. They all specialized at a young age, and they all became the best in their fields. Specialization has to be the best route for my child, right?

Wrong!

Early specialization is not the way to go for your child, and you need to use caution when those coaches or other parents come telling you little Billy needs to play AAU ball for this “elite” team or that “select” team.

You’ll ask those coaches or parents, “What about an off-season?” No, no Billy needs to play all year round; how else is he going to get noticed and earn that big scholarship?

“Well, Billy wants to play other sports.” Other sports!? That will kill Billy’s development and chances of making the “select” team and his chances for the next level.

Problem is, Billy’s only 10 years old. What’s the next level? U11, maybe U12?

Of course those people pushing early specialization are the coaches and tournament organizers who make a pretty penny off all this nonsense. Not to mention the fact that they often have no understanding of youth development and the surmounting evidence that late specialization trumps early specialization.

(photo: bretcontreras.com)

(photo: bretcontreras.com)

So why take a stand against specialization? Let me show you.

Early specialization has been shown through various studies to increase overuse injuries, burnout, stagnation, and likelihood to quit. Kids are getting injured at higher rates, losing interest quicker, and being abused by poor coaches with poor understanding of a youth’s developing body. Too much importance is being put on winning, instead of development of the athlete. Here’s some more bad news, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

- Twenty percent of 8-12 year olds and 45% of 13-14 year olds will have arm pain at one point in time during a baseball/softball season

- Kids, ages 5-14, account for nearly 40% of ALL sports-related injuries treated in hospitals

- Sixty-two percent of injuries occur during practice

- More than half of all sport injuries are preventable

- Nearly 50% of all injuries sustained by 6-12 graders are overuse injuries

- There has been a 400% increase in ACL injuries the past 10 years

- There has been a fivefold increase in the number of serious elbow and shoulder injuries since 2000

- By age 13, 70% of kids quit sports. Number 1 reason, adults (coaches or parents)

When you are young, all movements, skills, and sports contribute towards developing a well-rounded athletic base.
A youth’s body is not developed for specialization. Their skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems are not developed to handle the repetitive stresses that specialization requires. Their bodies and systems thrive and develop with diverse and various movements, skills, and stimuli. Is it any question that surgeries and injuries such as ACL, elbow, shoulder, stress fractures, and tendonitis are now commonplace, whereas 20 years ago these injuries were almost non-existent?

If a 10 year-old excelled at mathematics, would you pull him/her from all the other subjects to solely focus on math? Hell no you wouldn’t! Continuing all the other subjects is needed to develop a well-rounded learning base and environment. So why do we do the same for sports?

But how will little Billy ever reach 10,000 hours?

Let them try a variety of sports
When you are young, all movements, skills, and sports contribute towards developing a well-rounded athletic base. Billy may be a basketball star, but playing baseball, soccer, gymnastics, and/or football will help Billy in the long run. Not only will these other sports develop skills and qualities that will carry over to basketball, but they will also help to prevent overuse and burnout of basketball. Even more, just because Billy is great at basketball now, it does not mean that basketball will be his best or even favorite sport down the road.

But how will little Billy ever earn a scholarship if he isn’t playing on these “elite” and “select” teams?

This is one of the biggest shams ever, and a huge reason I can’t stand AAU, “select,” or “elite” teams. Do you really think playing for these teams will make or break your child’s chance at gaining a scholarship? To put it simply: no!

A Scandinavian study found that “[N]ear-elite athletes specialized from an early age, while the elite athletes did not.”
My dad always told us children, “If you’re good enough, someone will find you.” Not playing on these teams will do nothing to hurt your kids chances at getting a scholarship. Do you ever see big time college coaches at these youth tournaments scouting the crop of 10-12 year olds? Whether you’re from a small school/town,or have never played on any of those special teams, or never traveled across the country doing showcases, if you are truly good enough, you will get noticed.

Need more evidence? Ok.

A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports compared elite to near-elite athletes. What they found is that near-elite athletes specialized from an early age, while the elite athletes did not. So while at younger ages (9-12) the near-elite athletes accumulated more hours of practice, the elite group started to increase their hours during mid-adolescence (15-18). This study strongly suggests that early specialization does not increase chances of becoming elite, and suggests that during mid to late-adolescence is a prime time to start increasing specific hours.

(photo: dotraining.co.uk)

(photo: dotraining.co.uk)

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