Is it Wise to Specialize?

What used to be considered taboo is now seen as a natural transition in a youth athlete’s career. Gone are the days of free play, problem-solving, and simply “being a kid” where a child’s biggest stressor in life was deciding if she wanted to play four sports or just three. Young athlete’s today face a much greater threat, with a rather insidious agenda. Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past 5-10 years, you know I am referencing early specialization.

Children no longer play, they perform. Each youth athlete I interact with on a daily basis has a throwing coach, a shooting coach, a pitching coach, and face unfair expectations from either their parents (or worse, themselves) to perform to a certain level each and every day. This strikes a chord with me, if these “coaches” would take a few hours to read a fucking book they would know that two factors determine everything in an athlete’s career:

  1. Genetics
  2. How they play the hand they’ve been dealt

Number 1 they have no control over, they weren’t able to pick their parents. Number 2 however, parents and coaches have a great deal of influence on. Take this year’s NFL Draft for example, 30 of the 32 draftees in the first round were multiple sport athletes. How can this be? The central nervous system (CNS) is most sensitive from the ages 14-20 in boys and girls. Additionally, there are “windows of opportunity” for malleability and CNS enhancement from external stimuli (play, several sports, etc.). These windows are:

  • Females = 6-8 & 11-13 years of age
  • Males = 7-9 & 13-16 years of age

A young athlete’s CNS is similar to that of a ball of clay, in which it can be shaped and formed based on what we expose it to. With this information, one would deem it common sense to present our youth as many sports and games as possible, right? Unfortunately, common sense isn’t so common these days.

Now, I may be asking too much here, but what the hell I’ll give it a try. If parents and coaches were to watch children play games, (tag, red rover, red light/green light) it would be revealed to them that these games have acceleration and deceleration mechanics incorporated. The beauty of it? The kids don’t even know it, they’re too busy having FUN! Furthermore, “play” is a true display of complex motor patterns in a chaotic environment – call me crazy, but that sounds like sports.

Just wait, it gets better. The real gem is when parents will tell me they’re afraid of wearing little Johnny out, but will turn around and lock him in a gym with a dribbling coach for 2+ hours, 3-4 times per week. I have two problems with this (if I missed something please feel free to comment):

  1. Due the to Law of Accommodation, if the organism (youth athlete) is exposed to the same stimulus for too long, not only will progress cease, but he will also regress because his body simply has adapted and has grown “bored” if you will.
  2. If the child has a general level of fitness i.e. not sitting in front of a screen all damn day, he more than likely has a well-developed aerobic system. Meaning, he is able to recover between bouts of play quickly and efficiently. It is rather primal and animalistic in nature, the young need to have the energy to flee or escape any threat or stressor. Moral of the story? You’re not going to wear them out.

Summary

Early specialization is an epidemic that is plaguing our youth athletes. Those who have fallen prey to this vice are paying the cost of injury, failing to meet their potential, and worst of all, not having fun. Isn’t that what sports were meant for in the first place?!

Fortunately, the solution is rather simple: saturate our youth with a plethora of sports and external stimuli. Limiting them to one will lead to asymmetries. While it is difficult to correct an asymmetry, it is quite easy to control their amount of stimuli, or “training load” if you will.

Best,

HMC

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