EARLY SPORT SPECIALIZATION



By Brian T. McCormick



The general public rarely allows sports science to interfere with its deeply held beliefs, even when the beliefs are more myth than reality. When I coached basketball in Ireland, the young Irish players believed that basketball greatness was not in their genes. They said that Irishmen were not meant to be great athletes. Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Team crushed its opponents in its preparation for the 2007 World Cup, where some experts pegged Ireland as a co-favorite with the All Blacks. While basketball and rugby are different sports requiring 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 development is beyond their gene pool?

Few view rugby and basketball in terms of athletic qualities, so few see the similarities. The same is true with sports in the United States. Many coaches and parents fail to see the athletic similarities between sports: People view basketball as a sport for tall people who can shoot; rugby as an aggressive, physical sport; and volleyball as a non-contact sport with different ball skills than other sports. We miss the athletic similarities, which impedes our overall athletic development.

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Because we view sports in sport-specific terms, coaches encourage players to specialize at earlier and earlier ages. Some basketball coaches dislike players who play volleyball, as they see no benefit and feel they fall behind their teammates while "wasting time" playing volleyball. However, volleyball and basketball require lateral movement, hand-eye coordination, ball skills and vertical jumping. There is a transfer between blocking a ball and contesting a shot, between moving laterally for a dig and moving laterally to prevent an offensive player's penetration.

As youth sports grow more competitive, more young athletes rush to specialize. They heed their coach's advice or follow their parents' guidance, as parents try to give their child an advantage over the competition. Early specialization - when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty - leads to immediate sport-specific skill improvements. Coaches and parents see immediate results and follow this path. If the most skilled 10-year-old plays basketball year-round, maybe my son or daughter needs to devote 12 months a year to basketball. However, athletic development is a process, and sport-specific skill development is only one piece.

People encourage early specialization because of the immediate sport-specific performance gains and ignore research which cautions against early specialization. As Alan Launder writes in Play Practice:

"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."

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Before one can be great at any sport, he must be an athlete first, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development. However, as with the Irish players, we view sports based on sport-specific skills, not athletic qualities. We ignore examples like Chase Budinger and Wes Welker. Budinger, from the University of Arizona, was an elite high school volleyball player. University of Arizona Head Coach Lute Olson believes Budinger has the athleticism to be a great defensive player because of his volleyball experience. Welker played soccer throughout his high school career and his former football coach, Texas Tech University's Mike Leach, credits soccer for Welker's quickness and vision which make him nearly unstoppable as a slot receiver for the New England Patriots.

In recent years, athletic training facilities have proliferated. While these facilities play to parent's big league dreams, much of their success is developing general athletic skills which athletes fail to develop naturally because they specialize and narrow their athletic development. Rather than play multiple sports, which train multiple skills, athletes specialize in one sport and use performance training to compensate for their narrow athletic development.

Kids used to develop these athletic skills by playing multiple sports and neighborhood games. Young kids used to play tag. As speed expert Lee Taft says, "Tag may just be the greatest game ever invented...There is linear speed, lateral speed, angular take offs, moving backwards, avoidance skills, cutting, change of direction, faking skills, breaking down skills, reaching skills, body control skills, balance, flexibility, coordination, raising and lowering of the center of mass, setting up opponents, strategies, team work...Basically tag will force you to reach deep into the movement bag of tricks your body has stored, or better yet, not stored and force you to use it or learn it."

Now, rather than play tag in the street, kids go to facilities where they do agility drills so they can change directions, fake, evade and cut when they play basketball, soccer or football. We impose professional training environments on kids before puberty and ignore their differing developmental needs. 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).

Athletic development is a process and early specialization attempts to speed the process. However, what is the goal? 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 when they ultimately specialize. While those who specialized early hit a plateau, the others improve as they dedicate more time to enhancing their sport-specific skill.

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

Skills - from athletic to tactical to perceptual - transfer from sport to sport. Many coaches and parents insist there is no relation between sports, which gives more credence to early specialization. However, before one excels at a sport, he or she must be an athlete first. The more developed a player's general athletic skills, the higher the player's ceiling in his or her chosen sport. While the general public is slow to accept these ideas, sports science research contends that specialization before puberty is wholly unnecessary and in some cases is detrimental to an athlete's long term success. If the goal is to dominate other 10-year-olds, specialize early. 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.

McCormick coaches youth and high school basketball and volleyball; trains high school and college basketball players; and writes basketball instructional books. For more information, visit www.thecrossovermovement.com. To purchase McCormick's book, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, which outlines a system of long term athlete development, visit the 180Shooter.com Store.

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