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Early Specialization Threatens Youth Athletics

Article written by Medaille grad Mike Repertorio for Along The Boards

What is early sport specialization? Where did it come from? Why should you be concerned about it.
Early sport specialization, quite basically, is year round, focused, sport specific training which generally occurs between the ages of six to twelve. And unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in this method throughout youth athletics.
It’s hard to point to one source though, as we try and reverse this worrisome trend. The obvious focus on “winning at all costs” has had a clear trickle-down effect for sure. That combined with untrained and inexperienced coaches bent on building “super programs”, parents unsure of the right path and in some cases, even parents who use their child’s success to increase their societal standing, certainly has early specialization on the rise.
The highly popularized early specialization success stories of Tiger Woods, Lindsey Vonn, the Williams’s sisters and Michael Phelps, among others, along with the increased promotion of youth select programs and big stage youth athletic events have only added fuel the fire.
So what’s the concern with early specialization in youth athletics? I’ve put in the time, and I did the research to find the answer, but wanted just a little bit more before I was willing to say it. And to put me over the top, I was fortunate enough to speak with Athletic Trainer and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach Jim Starkey, Sport Psychologist and Ohio State Adjunct Faculty Member Dr. Todd Kays and Technical Director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model Ken Martel. The consensus… early sport specialization is wrong, plain and simple.
All three professionals, some with more fervor than others, shot down early specialization at the ideal training path in youth athletics. However, none of them cast “specialization” away altogether. In fact, specialization may have a place in a young athlete’s development, but as with most things, there is a time and a place.
As Starkey explains it, “If an athlete chooses to “specialize,” this should happen as the athlete is beginning their peak height velocity growth rate,” going on to clarify that this peak growth rate has a lot more to do with hormonal and neural changes in the body than it does with actual age. Thus the right time to specialize for one might not necessarily be the most effective time for another. And the understanding of that is crucial.
However, to put a number on it, Dr. Kays believes that in most cases, early specialization shouldn’t be considered until roughly the age of twelve or thirteen. Understand though, these are not just opinions, they derive from first-hand experience. But if that isn’t enough, Martel brings empirical research results to the table.
During an Olympic Camp leading up to the Sochi Olympics, the US Men’s Hockey team was asked to fill out a survey regarding their youth hockey experiences. According to the results, the earliest specializer did so that the age of twelve. The rest were well into their teens before they reported specializing, while one player stated he did not specialized until entering college. Not a single one of these athletes, USA Hockey’s Top Talent, specialized before the age of twelve, and they turned out pretty well.
It’s clear that these three, and so many others, are clearly not supporters of early specialization in youth athletics. But why?
There’s really two trains of thought when it comes to the negative effects of early specialization, split between the psychological and physiological effects. To get some insight, I asked Starkey, Kays and Martel all the same question. “What negative effects can result from athletes engaging in early specialization?”
One of the first things they all said in response was “burnout.” So what is burnout? As Starkey tells it, burnout occurs when “the athlete no longer has any drive to compete or train for sport due to prolonged and unpleasant experiences.” If severe enough, burnout can lead to an athlete walking away from the game entirely.
One such example of burnout, which led to dropout, is the story of York Simcoe Express Minor Midget Coach, Gregg Sutch. Sutch, a former OHLer, was a gritty winger who grew up in love with the game. “Eat, sleep, hockey, repeat,” Sutch recalls.
An eleventh overall pick in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection Draft and a fifth round pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 2010, Sutch was chasing the NHL dream, and put in the work to try and realize it. Unfortunately though, he wouldn’t earn his pro contract from the Sabres, and reflected on his feelings after hearing the news on his personal blog.
“I remember sitting at the kitchen table, feeling numb. It hit me. Here I am, 20 years old, with no contract in hand, busted up knuckles, 3 shoulder separations, 6 concussions, an ankle that had been torn up to shreds, chasing something that was a boyhood dream turned into a job.”
He would continue playing though, for now, finishing out his last year of OHL eligibility before eventually joining the York University Hockey team in the fall of 2013. However, he would wind up quitting just a few weeks later. “The thrill of playing was gone,” said Sutch.
Much like a nine-to-fiver who is constantly stressed out and hates what they do, Sutch found himself in a similar position. Hockey was his getaway as a child, but being so immersed for so long in the pressure and politics that had over taken the sport, it became nothing more than work. Forcing Sutch to make, as he described it, “the biggest decision of my life,” to move on from the game.
In sharing his story, the most import message he wanted to get across is to not forget to have fun. And that is the message we have to get through when talking about early specialization. It’s got to be fun, especially at the youth level. Sutch recognizes and understands that as you climb the ladder, it does become more of a business, but stresses the importance of finding that balance, and make sure, at the end of the day, you’re still having fun.
But don’t think Sutch’s story of dropout is the only negative outcome of burnout that can come about due to early specialization. From another perspective, continued involvement in association with burnout can also be a concern.
Using the term “staleness” to describe this issue at its root, Kays points out, it is more about mental exhaustion and really has nothing to do with their passion for a sport. “Mentally, they are just going through the motions,” says Kays. An athlete may still love the sport, but they get to a point where they’re not putting the same effort in and ultimately, not getting enough out of it. Eventually, this is what will cause an early specializer to begin to lag behind their teammates.
Thus, burnout, staleness and mental exhaustion and in extreme cases, dropout not only affects a child’s level of enjoyment and engagement, but can also have a negative effect on their long term development.
But from a physiological standpoint, early specialization can do even more damage to an athlete’s long term development. Starkey warns, “Children who excel at a sport specific skill set may find themselves far superior to their teammates at a younger age, however, as mastery of movement skill is most important at a young age, they may find their counterparts overtake them in sporting events as they begin to mature with excellent fundamental movement skills.”
Martel agrees, stating that by acquiring the necessary building blocks early, when an athlete is ready to specialize, he or she will already have all the tools they need to succeed ad developing those sport specific skills. But not just to succeed, but to exceed, the American Development Model’s Technical Director made the point to say, “What wows fans is what an athlete can do outside of that normal range of motion.”
And he uses a specific example when trying to get this point across. Maybe you remember this little dandy from Alexander Ovechkin. Martel’s point with this play is that Ovechkin never practiced that move. That’s not a hockey specific play. That came about thanks to Ovechkin’s youth development, which consisted of taking part in a wide range of athletic activities giving him the physical capacity to display that “Wow factor.”
Thus, “Sport specific skills are not as critical as fundamental movement skills for younger athletes,” says Starkey. If a child can move their body with motor control and efficiency, then they will excel in all sports.
So far, your young athlete’s sports career already seems to take a hit in terms of development as well as continued participation if early specialization is his or her chosen path. However, the potential dangers do not end there.
The threat of debilitating and potentially career ending injuries is also a serious concern. It’s important though to understand the difference between common sports related injuries and overuse injuries. There are many injuries that are inherent in playing sports, it’s just part of the territory. Most of these types of injuries can be described as acute injuries and include issues such as strains, sprains and fractures. However, chronic injuries, or “overuse” injuries stem from, quite literally, overusing a specific part of the body during play and training over an extended period of time.
Fortunately, for hockey players, overuse injuries are not as much of a concern as in other sports. However, Martel did warn of potential issues with hip injuries. He notes, there are many skaters who, as they age into their forties, begin to notice the damaging effects the sport can have on their hips. However, the dangers are especially prevalent for goaltenders of all ages.
And the story of goaltender Liam Herbst is the perfect example of overuse injuries due to early specialization.
Herbst, a “butterfly style” goalie has been playing the position since the age of six and had seen his career progress nicely. A first round pick by the London Knights in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection Draft, that’s where things started to turn.
For those of you not familiar with the “butterfly style” it has been described as seeing the ball of the femur jammed into the socket with a force similar to that of an Olympic weightlifter performing the clean and jerk. Imagine doing that for ten years. That’s where Liam was.
Four surgeries were needed to repair his hips and knees, costing him an entire season and put his potential NHL future in doubt. Fortunately for Herbst, he’s made a full recovery and just finished his first full OHL season with the Ottawa 67s.
A top goalie prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft, Herbst’s story seems to be trending upward. But it very easily could have gone another direction. Would it have been worth it? But the better question, would you, as a parent, be willing to take that risk?
Now, up until this point, we have looked at the ways early specialization can affect your child’s participation in and long term development/success in athletics. However, through athletic involvement, the goal is not only to provide children with the tools to succeed in their sport, but also to provide them with the tools to succeed in life. And when all a child spends their time doing is going to school, playing their sport and training, they are robbed of the opportunities required to obtain and develop those tools.
We can see it even for those early “specializers” who do find success. Kays warns of a lack of emotional maturity which can lead to poor and immature decisions made by athletes because they missed out on a wide range of experiences that help to develop a person’s behavioral tendencies.
The stress and chronic pressure to perform can also hinder their social development and affect their mental state. It’s important to consider, early specializers generally don’t have a chance to meet many new people, as they are usually with the same teammates for long periods of time. They don’t have the opportunity to learn from different coaches with alternating strategies. And they also miss out on a lot of non-sport related experiences that can provide important life lessons as well.
Overall, you have to remember, an extremely small percentage, maybe 1-2% according to Kays, of college athletes go pro in their sport. So why would someone be so focused on building an elite athlete rather than building up a well-rounded person with the physical fitness, emotional maturity, and social skills to succeed at life?
Coach Starkey sums it up quite simply, stressing free play at a young age and most importantly, age appropriate training in the best interest of the young athlete. The key term here is “best interest of the young athlete.” Whether referring to the athletic side of things or the social side, the point remains the same. We as a community have to do and promote the right thing, and do right by our young athletes to give them the best chance to succeed at whatever path they follow in life.
So now that we’ve established the dangers of early specialization, what can we do to reverse the growing trend? And what other options do you have for your child’s athletic training? Stay tuned to find out.
– Mike Repertorio (Medaille 2014)

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