The Big Lie about Specialization in Youth Sports
Melissa Hill and Charlotte Lettis Richardson
As running coaches we are often asked to work with young athletes who are involved in another sport, and are using running as a fitness tool. These athletes see themselves as specialist in their first sport and are focused on success from a very young age. They and their parents imagine they will be varsity in high school, will get a scholarship to college, and will eventually become a professional athlete with a high paying contract. What is our responsibility as coaches to insure the physical and mental safety of these athletes? What tools and policies can we implement to make sure these athletes are not being overtrained and stressed, especially competitively?
Here are some scenarios we often hear as coaches -
"My daughter can’t make her school sport practice today as her lacrosse club coach won’t allow her to miss a practice."
"If my child misses a soccer practice, she/he can’t play in their club games or competitions."
"The only way to make a varsity high school sport team is to start specializing in grade school."
"Missing a club sport practice means others will gain skills, and my child will fall behind."
We all know that these beliefs by parents and athletes are very common. They have been told these “facts” by club coaches, and believe them. But the question still remains. Does an athlete need to begin at an early age to achieve success in a sport? Both anecdotal and scientific evidence show this not to be true. Often early specialization can lead to injury and burn out. How do we help athletes and families find the right balance between sports, fitness and fun?
The Womens Running Coaches Collective wants to start a conversation. How do we, as coaches, deal with this myth of specialization and the younger athlete? After you read this article, please go to our Facebook page (and give us a like!) to add your comments on some or all of the questions below.
In your experience, does early specialization in sports lead to success?
Documentary films such as The Race to Nowhere, and academic studies (see below), often conclude that very few athletes benefit from early specialization (women’s gymnastics and figure skating). The Aspen Institute’s Project Play concludes that early specialization pathway fails to consider many of the physical, psychological, and social costs to young participants.
In our experience there are runners who exhibit and maintain success throughout their running careers, but most of them do more than just run; they bike, swim, hike or do another activity that uses a different plane of movement. In fact, most of the stronger runners we have coached, have participated in a wide variety of activities. These other physical activities have helped to keep them strong, healthy and mostly injury free. In addition, athletes who are well rounded in academics, the arts, and have a positive social life seem to stay grounded and happy. They are less likely to burn out.
How can we encourage our athletes to stay balanced?
One suggestion is to meet each season with your athletes for goal setting. Ask them questions about their academics, clubs and groups they belong to, and about their social lives. Find out as much as you can about your athlete. This will help you in writing workouts, but also help to monitor their busy lives. Are they well balanced without being overly programmed?
How sustainable is early specialization?
Working as a coach of young athletes, we've only seen one runner who specialized as a youth, and then went on to run at a D1 school. She quit after her freshman year of college and has not run since. She had supportive and reasonable parents, but had a running career for as long as some professionals. She was ready for a change.
Multiple soccer players (club and school), have joined our Cross Country program. Most of them would ask to be excused from xc practice if they had a club game or practice in the evening. They were very fit, and became solid 4th or 5th runners for our team. One soccer player went on to run in college, and none of them played soccer for their university!
Sports are hard. Training and competing is hard. Many athletes, even at the high school and college level, become “burned out” by the stress and demands of training and competition. As a coach, you have the responsibility to make sure your athletes are training age appropriately. Encourage your athletes to have a well rounded life and to focus on all aspects of their physical and psychological development. This will save many athletes from losing interest or “burning out”.
A coaching tip -
At the beginning each season, meet with your multi sport athletes and find out what days they will be absent from your practice, and what are their game days. Allow only one or two days off from your practices. Make a contract with the agreed commitments, and have both the athlete AND parent sign it. To avoid injury, check in with multi-sport athletes frequently to make sure hard workouts and competition aren’t overlapping. And remember, it is your team and your decision to allow an athlete to do a second sport during the season. You set the rules and they must agree or not participate.
What injuries do you see with athletes who have specialized?
As a running coach, we typically see pounding injuries; shin splints, feet problems, etc. Specialized athletes often are strong in one area and weak in another. Example: A lot of soccer players have strong quads, hamstrings and cardiovascular strength, but they don’t have a strong upper body. They often do not use their arms when they run!
Do specialized athletes gain psychological advantages in workouts and competition?
Athletes who have specialized at an early age have had the opportunity to experience hard workouts and to learn to be a good competitors. Soccer athletes are not afraid of running in a large pack, or competing "head to head". They are tough.
Some athletes who play two sports, but specialize in one, are often stressed with their secondary sport. They want to succeed in the second activity, but don’t have the confidence or time to put into workouts and competition. Many two sport athletes who have joined the XC team do not have the running experience to put themselves in a position to lead a race and they stay in their comfort zone among the pack.
The psychological and physical demands on a multi sport athlete can outweigh their acquired competitive skills. One of the goals of youth sports is to expose the athlete to a sport, make it fun, and hope they will want to go on to higher competitive levels or be fit the rest of their lives. These youngsters have learned the competitive side of sport. But it is important coaches promote a lifelong discipline of healthy living; working out, importance of play and fellowship with friends and teammates.
We have often had athletes come out for track in their senior year to have fun and end up becoming passionate about the sport! Often these athletes have played another varsity sport from an early age and have decided not to play in college, or know they wouldn’t make a college team. Oddly enough, several have been extremely successful in track and field and ended up being recruited to compete in college!
So what do we as coaches do about early specialization?
Stress the importance of a childhood filled with creative play. Children who lack imagination cannot envision strategies to compete and win in their lives.
Multi sport play encourages physical movement on all planes, strengthening our young athletes and preparing them for future competition.
Giving our youngsters a chance to play multiple sports at a more casual level allows them to develop different skills and time to choose which sport they will eventually play in high school/college or for the rest of their lives!
When is it time for athletes to specialize?
For some it is never. Some athletes come out for sports for the social and fitness aspects of being on a team. Encourage them to experience multiple sports to find the one they enjoy the most.
For those lucky enough to have the chance to compete at the college level, high school is the time to start thinking about specialization. It is tempting with talented high school freshman to encourage them to train hard and compete at the varsity level. Just be careful with these special athletes and bring them along slowly. By their sophomore, junior and senior year they will be strong and experienced enough to run at the higher level.
A good book about young runners is Training Young Distance Runners by Larry Greene and Russ Pate. Great age appropriate training and racing information.
Additional articles to read -
Adult driven, hyper competitive race to the top in both academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids.
Transforming education from the ground up -
The myth of early specialization success -
Early Sport Specialization: Some Benefits, But Many Drawbacks -
When should my child specialize in one sport? -
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play: Reimagining Youth Sports in America -