The Myth of Early Specialization

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

This summer, Chula Vista Little League won the Little League World Series, and the biography for winning pitcher Kiko Garcia said that he also played club soccer and basketball.

In the semi-finals of the United States’ bracket, Chula Vista defeated Warner Robins Little League from Georgia; ESPN showed the Warner Robins players preparing for their game by practicing their football plays, as football season had started in Georgia.

Throughout the tournament, ESPN’s baseball analysts praised the players’ fundamentals – especially the slick fielding of the San Antonio team and the professional hitting approach of Chula Vista – yet these players play multiple sports.

Many parents, however, rush their child into one sport. In youth basketball, many parents and coaches believe that players must specialize early just to make a high school team. However, most research contradicts these beliefs, and most sports scientists and doctors disagree with early specialization, which is playing one sport year-round to the exclusion of others at an early age, typically before the onset of puberty.

The arguments in favor of early specialization are:

  • To give less naturally talented players an advantage to catch up to their peers.
  • To develop better sport-specific skills.
  • To concentrate solely on one activity in an effort to excel.
  • To create a competitive advantage against those who do not play year-round.

Typically, those favoring early specialization are the competitive coaches or year-round programs that profit from children playing year-round competitive soccer or joining a year-round competitive swim team or taking year-round tennis lessons in a junior program. They convince parents that the only way to reach an elite level is through specializing and dedicating more time and energy (and consequently money).

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers brought the idea of the 10,000-hour rule or the 10-year rule into the public forum. Based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, the 10,000-hour, 10-year rule states that it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years to become an expert in any discipline, whether playing tennis, playing chess or writing novels. Some have used this research to justify or support early specialization.

A subsequent book, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, supports the idea of practice, not natural talent, as the recipe for expert performance. However, Coyle adds another element of Ericsson’s research: Ericsson writes that people should choose something that they love, as that is the only way that they will invest enough time and energy to become an expert.

Rather than push children to specialize early, Coyle writes that children need to engage in activities and choose their own pursuit. He calls this the ignition and suggests that this is as important as the deliberate practice which follows.

Jean Cote and Jessica Fraser-Thomas call the ignition period deliberate play. In Developing Sport Expertise, Cote and Fraser-Thomas introduce a three-phase development plan: sampling, specializing and investment. During the sampling years (ages 6-12), children should play many sports rather than training to excel in any one sport (some sports, like competitive gymnastics, differ because they require an early peak, as most elite gymnasts are in their middle to late teens due to the body issues associated with elite gymnastics).

They argue that “athletes who had been involved in diversified sporting activities during childhood required less sport-specific training during adolescence and young adulthood to achieve elite status in their sport,” (Farrow, et al).

Essentially, Cote and Fraser-Thomas believe that the hours of play in different sports count toward the 10,000 hours. Therefore, one does not need to spend 10,000 hours playing only basketball, soccer or tennis, but the athlete can spread his initial hours amongst numerous sports to develop different motor and cognitive skills which ultimately make for a better overall athlete when the athlete chooses to specialize in his or her teens.

If researchers conclude that late specialization leads to better future performance, why do coaches argue in favor of early specialization?

Most people see the technical or sport-specific skills of a sport. For instance, basketball coaches see shooting skills and soccer coaches see dribbling or passing skills and volleyball coaches see setting skills. Coaches spend hours teaching these technical skills so players master the specifics of the proper shooting or setting form. Coaches who have a natural bias toward their sport and to the importance of performing these skills correctly believe that proper skill execution separates the expert performers from the non-expert performers.

In many sports, however, technical skill execution is not the deciding factor for expert performance. In basketball, few players fail to make the next level because of sub-par shooting; in fact, rarely does the best college shooter get drafted. More often, the players who fail to move from Division I basketball to the NBA lack an athletic skill like quickness or a cognitive-perception skill like making the right decision when leading a fast break. Because coaches typically see the technical skills, they fail to see the transfer of these athletic and cognitive-perception skills between sports.

Eddie Jones, an Australian rugby coach, says, “I can clearly pick out those players who have played a variety of sports growing up relative to those who have predominantly specialized in rugby. A key difference is that those who have played lots of sports are usually more tactically astute,” (Farrow, et al).

I watched several former clients play in club basketball tournaments this summer. Their teams hardly practiced, so they played mostly unstructured basketball and relied on individual players’ game understanding and reading of teammates.

As I watched one girl, I felt her soccer experience helped her on the basketball court versus her teammates who were basketball specialists. When she retreated in transition defense in 3v2 or 2v1 situations, the opponent rarely scored. She did not do anything noticeably different, but when she was back, the opponent committed silly turnovers or took bad angles to the basket – it was easy to write off as bad offense, except it consistently occurred when one player was on defense, not with the others. When her teammates were back on defense, the other team made lay-ups and often scored three-point plays.

Later in the summer, I watched a college soccer practice and I saw virtually the same technique that my client used in basketball on display in transition defense in soccer. She did not even realize that she used her soccer lessons to enhance her basketball performance, but the concepts transferred and informed her play, which led to better decisions and better performance than players with more basketball experience.

In Developing Sport Expertise, Greg McFadden, the Australian Women’s Water Polo Head Coach, describes the two traditional paths to water polo: some players are competitive swimmers who transition to water polo late in their teens, while others play a team sport like rugby throughout the winter and play some water polo during the summer. “Generally, the players that played other team sports were more successful than those from a swimming background because they had an understanding of how to create space and where to pass, etc.” (Farrow, et al).

In McFadden’s perspective, playing rugby transfers to water polo success better than swimming experience. However, if you asked the average person about which sports are more similar – rugby and water polo or swimming and water polo – most people would pick water polo and swimming because they take place in the water and involve swimming.

In reality, swimming is primarily a motor skill sport while rugby and water polo are motor and cognitive skill sports. A motor skill sport is one where the quality of movement produced by the performer is the primary determinant of success, while a cognitive sport is one where the quality of the performer’s decisions regarding what to do determines success (Schmidt and Wrisberg). Swimming and water polo involve the same motor skill (swimming), while water polo and rugby involve similar cognitive skills in terms of spacing, passing, defense and other decisions.

In water polo, what factor separates the expert performer from the average player? Is it swimming skill or other skills like cognitive-perception skills, tactical understanding and more? If swimming skill separated the expert performers, wouldn’t Michael Phelps, Aaron Piersol and Ryan Lochte be the best water polo players in the world?

Swimming – the motor skill – is obviously an important skill in water polo just as running is important to soccer. However, running ability rarely distinguishes an expert soccer player from a non-expert, just as swimming skill is not the limiting factor for water polo players. Instead, it is often the “feel for the game” or the ability to make the right decisions which separate expert players.

An expert water polo player skillfully separates from his defender for a split-second to create space to receive a pass, turn and shoot; an expert soccer player anticipates the location of a driven ball and beats the defender to the spot to head the ball into goal.

While there appears to be zero similarity between a water polo player elevating above the water to catch, rotate his body and throw the ball into goal and a soccer player running to a ball kicked by a teammate and using his head to punch the ball into goal, the cognitive skills in terms of reading the defender, finding open space, reading a teammate’s intentions, understanding the positioning of the goalie, and more are virtually identical.

McFadden, Jones, Cote and others do not believe it is a coincidence when my client illustrates a deeper understanding of game awareness and decision-making skills based on her soccer experience more so than her basketball experience. To them, it is the same skill, just a different sport. Therefore, the arguments for early specialization which focus on enhanced skill development and better preparation fall short.

In fact, early specialization may inhibit optimal development rather than enhance development. For an aspiring basketball player, playing a similar invasion game like soccer, lacrosse or water polo has a positive effect on one’s ultimate basketball development because of the transfer of cognitive-perception skills.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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