Early Specialization

When I coached in Ireland, young Irish players believed that basketball greatness was beyond their genes. They said that Irishmen were not athletic. Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Team crushed its opponents in its preparation for the 2007 World Cup. While basketball and rugby require different skills, each features athletes who are fast, quick, agile, strong and coordinated. If Ireland produces world class rugby talent with these athletic qualities, why do Irish basketball players believe this athleticism is beyond their gene pool?

Few people see the athletic similarities between rugby and basketball because we focus on the sport-specific skills. We miss the similar athletic skills required to play each sport: agility, quickness, footwork, balance, explosiveness, anaerobic conditioning, strength and more.

Because we concentrate on sport-specific skills, more coaches encourage early specialization – when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty. Athletic development is a process, and early specialization attempts to speed the process.

However, is the goal to dominate as a 10-year-old? Early specialization leads to early peaks. Players improve their sport-specific skills more rapidly than those who participate in a wide range of activities. However, those who develop deeper and broader athletic skills have a better foundation. While those who specialize early hit a plateau, the others improve as they dedicate more time to enhancing their sport-specific skill.

If a 10-year-old specializes in basketball, he improves his dribbling, shooting and understanding of the game more rapidly than his peers who play multiple sports, while his peers develop many other athletic skills. If his peers play soccer, they improve their vision, agility, footwork and more; if they play football, they improve acceleration and power. When these athletes specialize in basketball at 15-years-old, they have broader athletic skills and an advantage against the player who specialized early and hits a plateau in his skill development.

“The growth of sports has led to parents a lot of times having their kids specializing at a young age [in order to] get a college scholarship,” Dr. Brenner says. “There is nothing to show that starting this young is going to get them there.”

The truth, however, is that the players who receive the scholarships are the better athletes. The irony of early specialization is that players specialize to “gain a competitive advantage” or “to get ahead,” but the better athlete has the advantage. Before one can be great at any sport, he must be an athlete, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development.

USC Football Coach Pete Carroll says, “I want guys that are so special athletically, so competitive that they can compete in more than one [sport] here at USC. It’s really important that guys are well-rounded and just have this tendency for competitiveness that they have to express somewhere.”

Meanwhile, University of North Carolina Women’s Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance says that he recruits speed because he feels that his staff can teach a fast player to play soccer, but they cannot teach a skilled soccer player to be really fast.

Because we misunderstand the athletic development process and place a higher priority on sport-specific skills like shooting and dribbling, we miss the athletic skills that underlie every sport-specific technique and underestimate the importance of general athletic skills in sports performance. When we see a player catch, shoot and make a jump shot, we notice his shooting technique. However, we miss the athletic skills like deceleration, hand-eye coordination, visual acuity, fine motor control, depth perception, balance, strength, power and coordination. Without these general athletic skills, the player would not exhibit the perfect technique.

Many basketball coaches prefer their players to play basketball year-round rather than playing soccer or volleyball. Coaches feel like the court time that the players miss is far more valuable than the time wasted playing another sport.

When we learn that LeBron James played high school football or Steve Nash played soccer and did not play basketball until around 12-years-old or that 2009 NBA 2nd Round pick Chase Budinger was a high school All-American in volleyball, we figure that these players could play multiple sports because they are great athletes. However, we never credit their late specialization and multi-lateral development as the reason why they are great athletes.

As an example, Texas Tech University Football Coach Mike Leach credits soccer for New England Patriots’ Wide Receiver Wes Welker’s quickness and vision which make him nearly unstoppable as a slot receiver, as Welker played high school soccer and football before choosing football at TTU.

More children choose to specialize in one sport at earlier and earlier ages to improve their competitive opportunities despite the arguments against early specialization:

“In 1985, a study by the Swedish Tennis Association suggested that early specialization is unnecessary for players to achieve high performance levels in tennis. Among other things, this study found that the players who were part of the Swedish tennis ‘miracle’ of the 1980s, including the great Bjorn Borg, were keenly active in a range of sports until the age of 14 and did not begin to specialize until about the age of 16” (Launder).

The more a player develops his general athletic skills, the higher his ceiling in his chosen sport. Early specialization leads to early sport-specific development and immediate performance gains. However, early peaks accompany the early development, and over the course of one’s athletic career, the early specialization has a detrimental effect. In the Swedish study, “what was most significant was that many players who had been superior to the eventual elite while in the 12-14 age group had dropped out-been burned out-of the sport,” (Launder).

Considering that less than 3% of high school basketball players play competitive college basketball, what do children gain through specialization? What do children lose when they specialize early?

Four Arguments Against Early Specialization

  1. Multilateral Development
  2. Periodization
  3. Overuse Injuries
  4. Fun

Multilateral Development

Playing multiple sports increases an athlete’s multilateral development and develops bio-motor qualities like Strength, Speed, Endurance, Flexibility and Coordination. A strong, balanced foundation enhances sports performance. Athletes who only play basketball develop with a more shallow foundation.

“Between the ages of 6 – 14, athletes should be focused primarily on developing fundamental proficiency in as many athletic skills as possible. Running, jumping, throwing, lateral movement, spatial orientation. The fundamental components of ANY sport are based on movement ability…” (Grasso).


Playing multiple sports creates a natural periodization. Periodization is the process of planning one’s training to peak for important games or competitions. For young athletes, playing multiple sports breaks the year into different seasons which keep the young athlete mentally, physically and psychologically fresh.

In the year-round basketball environment, there is no periodization, as players play year-round without any off-season or down time to rest, recover mentally and physically or train one’s weaknesses. Consequently, there is a precipitous drop in play during the final week of the summer evaluation period. As a Division I Assistant Coach told me, “I think burnout is a problem because the kids play too many summer games. Also, injuries occur because a lot of teams do not take breaks during the summer recruiting period.”

Overuse Injuries

The year-round basketball and repetitive movements lead to muscle imbalances and tightness, which decrease flexibility and performance. Consequently, the incidence of overuse injuries has increased dramatically in the past 10 years as more athletes specialize. The American Academy of Pediatrics, advises that “youngsters should be discouraged from specializing in a single sport before adolescence to avoid physical and psychological damage. The risks range from ‘overuse’ injuries such as stress fractures to delayed menstruation, eating disorders, emotional stress and burnout.”

Athletes undergo tremendous repetitive stress on muscles, joints and ligaments unprepared for the year-round training. Without a gradual progression from general to specific and a complimentary conditioning program to balance bio-motor training, athletes’ bodies break down and the breakdown manifests as an overuse injury.

The New York Times wrote about the increasing frequency of hip injuries, and while no long term studies have explained the new frequency of injuries, some blame the early start to youth sports:

Dr. Bryan T. Kelly, a surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan…said he did not believe it was a coincidence that “I get 40 hockey players in a six-week period at the end of the season all coming into my office with the same-looking bone structure in their hips, all saying that they have been skating since they were 3 years old.”

Kelly added, “I believe we are seeing some consequences from having our kids over the past few decades playing sports more at younger ages.”


Finally, and most importantly, playing different sports is fun. Young athletes engage in different activities with new teammates, coaches and social environments.

With little to gain through early specialization, why are parents, coaches and young athletes in a hurry to rush the developmental process? Presently, 70% of athletes quit sports by age 13 and most athletes never play competitively in college. If the goal is to dominate other 10-year-olds, specialize. However, if the goal is to nurture healthy children and give them an opportunity to participate in high school and/or college athletics, playing multiple sports offers a child more developmentally than does early specialization.

At its most basic level, youth sports provide a foundation for athletic participation throughout one’s life. A multilateral approach to training prepares young athletes for athletic participation in a variety of activities throughout their lifetime.

Early Specialization: The Elena Delle Donne Story

In the fall of 2008, the most anticipated incoming women’s basketball recruit (to that date) enrolled at the University of Delaware. The 6’5 Elena Delle Donne was not making a statement; instead, after committing to the University of Connecticut and attending summer school, she decided that she preferred to attend school close to home and play volleyball.

As she said when interviewed at the time:

“About age 13, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore,’ Delle Donne says. ‘It’s not fun.’”

In 2006, Slam profiled Delle Donne and asked, “Is Elena Delle Donne ready to take women’s basketball to the next level? The better question might be whether the women’s game is ready for her.” She was 16 when Slam made Delle Donne into a national story, moving her fame beyond the local Internet boards and women’s basketball sites into the mainstream. In the article, Veronica Algeo said, “Bottom line, she’s as close to a celebrity as this state has. She’s the face of Delaware in the sports world…and she probably will be for two decades to come.”

When Delle Donne finally quit in 2008 (she plans to play for Delaware in 2009), most people did not understand, least of all her once-future coach Geno Auriemma:

“I don’t know how you can play that much basketball and be that good at it and say, ‘I hate it since the time I was 13.’ To me, those two things don’t go together … that you would be that good at something and not enjoy any of it. It’s hard for me to come to grips with,” Auriemma says.

“I’m still not able to see how that makes any sense. I didn’t understand it and haven’t understood it right from the beginning.”

Auriemma’s sentiment was echoed by the majority of comments across the Internet. However, Delle Donne’s displeasure should not have been a great surprise. The surprise was that she had the self-confidence (and financial stability) to make such a decision.

According to the Slam article, Delle Donne started organized league play when she was five. Her father said, “She’s been full-time basketball since she was nine-years-old…Every summer… She works with a trainer and a physical therapist, plays pick-up against grown men every week.”

When she left for college, she was nine years into a full-time basketball career. The Slam article said that her schedule, “gives her two weeks off in August, along with two more weeks exclusively for weight-lifting.” By the time she quit, she spent 450 of the past 468 weeks devoted to basketball.

Is it still difficult to understand how a player can burn out at 18-years-old? Adults fail to understand because, to an adult, basketball is playing – it is recreation and fun. However, play vanished when she was nine, as she trained to excel 50 weeks per year for nine years.

In 2009, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), lengthened the off-season from seven to nine weeks because it felt the 45-week season wore down the players. Professional tennis players need nine weeks to rest, but Delle Donne was afforded only two.

In today’s culture, we expect single-minded dedication from our teenage heroes. We treat players like mini-professionals with their personal trainers, private facilities and 100-game per year schedule.

As she said: “I’d rather be a face for happiness and doing things that you have a passion for, rather than faking it and pretending like I’m this face of women’s basketball when I can’t stand the sport at all.”

We easily dismiss a young athlete’s fatigue and callously assume that this generation is soft. However, physical, psychological and physiological burnout happens more often than we believe. Placing young kids in a pre-professional environment adversely affects young athletes and these effects are not fully understood because previous generations developed differently.

We watch the Olympics and see 16-year-old gymnasts who train 365 days a year, and we champion their dedication. However, an elite gymnast trains to compete in one event. Her career culminates in a single Olympic Games between her 14th and 18th birthday. Few gymnasts maintain their training for a second Olympic Games because the heavy training exacts a giant toll, including a delaying of puberty, which supports the need for early specialization and a youthful peak.

Basketball differs. In a sense, Delle Donne trained in the same manner as an elite gymnast, working tirelessly through her childhood to maximize her talent. However, while Shawn Johnson’s pay-off was the Olympic Games, an appearance on Dancing with the Stars and commercial endorsements, Delle Donne’s pay-off is a scholarship and four more years of training.

In basketball, there is no need to peak at 16 years of age because an elite player has 15-20 more years to play. Gymnasts peak around 16 years of age because that is their window for elite performance. However, the window for women’s basketball does not even start until players are 18 and playing college basketball. Therefore, a gymnast’s schedule fails to justify the early specialization and overtraining of a young basketball player, unless her goal is to dominate the high school level and retire.

I have seen many players suffer the same burnout as Delle Donne, but she received national exposure because she was more accomplished. A player plays for fun and shows some aptitude. Parents want to provide their daughter with the best opportunity for success, so she plays for a more competitive team with a more demanding coach. Parents see the competition and decide to use a trainer to enhance their daughter’s opportunities. She follows directions and goes where she is told. Toward the end of high school, she looks around and compares her existence to her peer’s and wonders what it is like to be normal. As her college decision approaches, she has second thoughts as she imagines another four years without control of her own life. In most cases, she commits and plays college basketball because it is the only way that she can afford to go to college. However, I have worked with players who turned their backs on scholarships and preferred to work and be a normal student.

In “Delle Donne Says She’s Tired of Basketball,” by John Altavilla, Ernie Delle Donne, Elena’s father, said, “In retrospect, it’s been about four or five years since she’s had the glee. There was a giddiness the game used to give her that I haven’t seen. The severity of her displeasure with the game was the most shocking thing.”

It is not shocking. In this environment, players lose their sense of self. People overlook their adolescence because of their advanced basketball skill set.

“How could [you] get to be the best if you don’t have some passion for it?” Auriemma asks. “It would’ve come out a long time before. A lot of kids probably don’t like playing piano, but I don’t know that you become the best if you don’t like it at all. At some point, you would screw it up on purpose, wouldn’t you?”

The point isn’t that she lacked a passion for the game. Instead, her schedule dampened her passion. She played because she liked the team camaraderie, competition and other aspects of playing high school basketball. She lost her enthusiasm because she was pushed to be too competitive and too good at too young of an age. At nine, she trained to be a basketball player rather than playing, and the accumulation of training, expectations, and competition eventually led to emotional and physical burnout.

Delle Donne illustrates a remarkable self-awareness and maturity, which few teenagers or college students match. She is a cautionary tale of what happens when you push too hard, too soon and for too long. Rather than push players to specialize and train like a pre-professional, children should play sports and engage in many activities before choosing their pursuit late in their teenage years.

Buy Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development as a paperback or as an e-book. 207-page book divided into four major age groupings and four major skill categories (Athletic, Psychological, Tactical and Technical).

“Brian McCormick hits a home run with his book on youth basketball…This is one of the few sources that is a quality book that hits the mark for players and coaches. I recommend it highly.” – Jerry Krause, Nat’l. Assoc. of Basketball Coaches Research Chairman

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