Early Specialization – Why is youth sports still a mess?!
Updated: Apr 8
First of all, I don´t have an answer to this question.
Yesterday I came across a blog post by Michael Boyle from 2008 where he criticizes the phenomenon of early specialization and why it´s basically ruining sports for kids. 11 years later the New York Times wonders if youth sports are too intense and if parents should limit sports participation for children. Seems like nothing has changed in youth („high-performance“) sports in the last decade (probably even longer).
Early specialization has been a research field of sports scientists for quite a while and various studies show the consequences of single-sport participation for kids. Physical and psychologial stress and skill focused drills and practices can lead to a higher risk of injury, early drop outs and lack of developing a variety of movement skills.
"But you have to start early if you wanna make it in elite sports!“, parents, scouts and coaches tell me all the time. This is true for sports like gymnastics, diving or figure skating, but that´s it. Recent studies show that early specialization doesn´t increase the odds of being successful in high-performance sports. I´ll repeat this, because it seems quite tough to understand: Early specialization in one sport does NOT improve the chances of success in elite sports! If you still think a child has to play football 5x a week at the age of 8 to make it into the "Bundesliga“ or a 11 year old kid has to do 5 weightlifting sessions a week to win an olympic medal one day, then go back and read again.
Early specialization is not a controversial issue anymore, sport scientists recommend early diversification and exposing kids to different sports and a huge variety of movements. There are great models of long-term athlete development and a lot of holistic concepts for training with kids. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) demands in their consensus statement on youth athletic development to “ encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (ie, deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sport participation and enjoyment.“
So, why are sports federations, clubs, parents and coaches not following these recommendations? Why do we still have „youth high-performance centers“ where kids have to choose one sport and practice sport-specific skills several times a week? Why do scouts still tell a 8-year old kid, that he can be the next CR7 if he trains football 5x a week? Why do coaches force a 10-year old, who likes swimming, cricket and basketball to decide which sport he wants to play and focus on? Why do we start talent ID programs in primary schools and already label children as talented for a specific sport?
The current system in youth sports - at least in Germany - supports early specialization even though everyone knows the negative consequences for kids. Educating coaches and parents about the benefits of multi-sports participation has been done in the last decade, but it seems like most of them don´t want to listen.
Michael Boyle said in 2008, that "youth sports is a mess we may never be able to clean up.“ Unfortunately I have to agree for now, but I encourage every coach or parent to help cleaning up the mess and change the system.
Resources Normand, J. M., Wolfe, A., & Peak, K. (2017). A review of early sport specialization in relation to the development of a young athlete. International Journal of Kinesiology & Sports Science, 5(2), pp. 37-42.
Kliethermes, S. A., Nagle, K., Côté, J., Malina, R. M., Faigenbaum, A., Watson, A., . . . Jayanthi, N. (2019). Impact of youth sports specialisation on career and task-specific athletic performance: a systematic review following the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) Collaborative Research Network`s 2019 Youth Early Sport Specialisation Summit. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Cote, J., & Erickson, K. (2015). Diversification and deliberate play during the sampling years. Routledge handbook of sports expertise, pp. 305-316.
Dahab, K., Potter, M. N., Provance, A., Albright, J., & Howell, D. R. (2019). Sport specialization, club sport participation, quality of life, and injury history among high school athletes. Journal of Athletic Training, 54(10), pp. 1061-1066.