Early Specialization Too Soon

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports and Fitness, May/June 2013.

As a seventh grader dribbled around his back and attacked the basket during a middle school championship game, the parents commented to each other about the quality of play. One mother explained that several players played on a year-round competitive team in addition to their school team. The year-round play likely helped their team win the game and the championship. Their skills were a little more advanced than their opponent; they made some free throws, and they made better decisions in 2v1 fast breaks. Of course, they also may have won because one player had more facial hair than I had when I graduated from high school or because they had the tallest, most coordinated player on the court. They also may have been lucky, as this was the first time in two seasons and four games that they had won against this opponent. 

In youth sports, there are many explanations for a team’s success; people choose the narrative that fits their perspective. If a mother spends several thousand dollars per year on a competitive travel team, she attributes her son’s success to this year-round play, not his size advantage. The mother of the shortest player on the losing team may attribute the loss to her son’s lack of physical maturity, not his non-existent skills. The coach may attribute his team’s success to his coaching, not his players’ year-round play with another coach and team. Everyone has his or her own perspective, and the truth often includes a little of everyone’s perspective.

Is the year-round play or early specialization good for those children? The answer depends on the children’s and the parents’ goals. If the goal was to win a middle school championship, playing year-round on a club team probably enhanced their opportunity to win. If the goal was to have fun or to keep the boys busy and out of trouble, playing on a club team likely kept the children busy, though there may not be a guarantee of fun. If the goal was to enhance their future playing opportunities in high school and beyond, the early specialization in basketball likely did not benefit the players compared to playing in many different activities at this age.

Nearly every player on my freshmen basketball team this season played football or soccer before basketball, and our opponents’ best players were football players. Are they the most skilled basketball players? Will they have the longest basketball careers? I don’t know. Some may choose football; some may not grow; some may not have grades; some may not practice hard enough. It is hard to predict the future. However, I would say that the multi-sport athletes have a better chance to develop into varsity basketball players than the single-sport players.

The multi-sport athletes were stronger and quicker, which provides a better base on which to develop better basketball skills as they continue to play. Additionally, many, if not most, of the best players in professional sports were multi-sport athletes during their childhood. LeBron James was an all-state wide receiver in high school; Tom Brady was drafted in the Major League Baseball Draft; Miguel Cabrera was offered a professional volleyball contract. Aberrations? No. According to an article circulating online that looked at the top 10 players in each of the four major professional leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) as determined by ESPN, 82% of the top 40 athletes played multiple sports during their childhood.

These observations are supported more and more by research. A recent study looked at the association between the number of sports played at 11, 13, and 15 years of age and the level of competition between 16 and 18 years of age. Those who competed in three sports at 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at a national level between the ages of 16 and 18 than those who practiced only one sport (Bridge & Toms, 2012). This study suggested that multi-sport athletes do not have their national or professional aspirations curbed by their late specialization, but instead suggested that playing multiple sports may increase one’s chances of becoming an elite athlete, much like the observations of professional athletes.

A 2011 study found that elite athletes specialized in a single sport at a later age and trained less during childhood than their near-elite peers (Moesch, Elbe, Hauge, & Wikman, 2011). The elite athletes in this study intensified their training more in adolescence than did the near-elites. The organization of practice during the mid-teens was seen as the crucial factor separating the two groups, meaning that my freshmen are approaching the time of differentiation. How hard will they practice? What will they do in the off-season? How much will they lift weights and take care of their bodies? How much playing time will they earn? These are the questions that will determine their future participation and success, not the number of sports that they played in childhood or amount of practice hours in basketball prior to high school.

I know a high-school coach who believes that he can identify his varsity starters when they are in middle school. He must be amazing, as I do not know how the 14 freshmen on my team will turn out in the future. He believes in his talent identification skills; I believe that he creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures that he is correct. Research has shown that only a third of international pre-junior athletes reappeared as senior athletes (Barreiros, Côté, & Fonseca, 2012). Whereas there is more competition for national team positions than for varsity high-school positions, the research again suggests that the years that determine one’s success in high school and beyond are during the high-school years. With my team, are the taller guys done growing? When will the shorter guys hit their growth spurts? Who will work harder during the off-season? Who will decide to focus on football, baseball, or soccer rather than basketball?

For most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status. Some specialization is required to develop into an elite athlete. However, for most sports, this specialization should be delayed until late adolescence to optimize success while minimizing injury, psychological stress, and burnout. (Jayanthi, Pinkham, Dugas, Patrick, & LaBella, 2012). In a tennis study conducted in Chicago, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi compared the sport participation of injured and uninjured adolescent tennis players. The injured players spent more than 5 times as much time playing organized tennis compared to recreation and free play, whereas the uninjured players spent only 2.6 times as much time in organized tennis. Whereas both groups engaged in the same amount of total exercise, the specialization in the single activity appeared to be the precursor to injury. Beyond physical injury, some adolescents may burn out on the activity if training year-round in one activity for a number of years through their childhood. I have trained several players who turned down college scholarship opportunities because they were sick of the sport and the training and wanted to do normal things.

If the goal is to win middle school championships, specialize. One’s sport-specific skills will develop more quickly with the additional hours of play and practice, and this may lead to the desired championship. However, this early specialization generally leads to an earlier peak in performance. For these children, winning the middle school championship may end up as their crowning achievement in basketball. Was that the goal? Is that a good outcome for the year-round play? Numerous studies have shown that late specialization leads to better adult performance and decreased injury and dropout rates. For long-term sports participation, enjoyment, and success, playing multiple sports throughout childhood with greater specialization as one moves through high school appears to be the best path.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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