Early Specialization in Athletics: The Next Great Player or Burnout?

Madeline Hubbard ‘19
Contributing Writer

It is commonly recognized that it takes 10,000 hours to attain mastery in any specific field.  This idea was popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book, Outliers. It naturally leads modern parents to one logical conclusion: that their child needs to start playing a sport as soon as possible and practice often as well.  Their goal? To attain the magic 10,000 hours of practice and reach expert level.

According to an article published by U.S. Youth Soccer, however, this principle was never intended to apply to athletics, as it focuses solely on practice.  In addition, Gladwell’s theory ignores factors such as genetics, opportunity and coaching.  There is a lot of evidence to suggest that early specialization may, in fact, do more harm than good for a child’s athletic career.  If a child shows some ability in a specific sport at a young age, it makes sense that a parent would want to help that talent grow by having them continue to play that sport.  However, a child who only ever plays one sport from a young age misses a lot of opportunities.  If a child never tries another sport, how can they know they have chosen the sport where they have the most talent?  Children gain many advantages from playing multiple sports at a young age.  One of these is simply finding the activity they truly enjoy and want to continue with.  They also learn valuable skills that translate to many sports, such as, hand eye coordination, quick reflexes, field vision and game decision-making.  Early specialization on the other hand, can lead to burn-out, over-use injuries and poor decision making about the athlete’s future.

Even with all of the evidence points for waiting to specialize, there is still immense pressure on parents to keep their children in one sport, so they don’t miss out or fall behind.  Coaches also feel pressure to specialize positions at young ages in attempts to win games.  This thought process hurts a player’s chances to grow into the best athlete possible, as they have lost the opportunity to gain better understanding for the sport by playing more positions and a well-rounded set of skills.  According to an article from the Changing the Game Project, dedicated to reviving and promoting youth sports, coaches are pressured to win and choose the best players for the team.  However, this excludes the players who have the potential to grow, become better players, and possess a “high level of coachability, sensitivity to training and the motivation to learn.”  From a health standpoint, muscle development and coordination will be maximized with a wide range of activities.  In fact, a study done at Loyola University found that early specialization in a single activity can make a player at least 70 percent more likely receive an injury.

Add to this the fact that children are more likely to stick with athletics and become active adults if they play multiple sports, because they will have more passion for their sport and more motivation to continue after experiencing many kinds of sports.  Most professional and college athletes have played multiple sports in their youth.  A simple Google search of professional athletes who only played one sport yields few results.  Playing multiple sports gave these athletes advantages that training in a singular discipline could not.  Cross training is an important part of being a well-rounded player and it’s important to remember this when children are choosing which sports to play.  Their future depends on it.              

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