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The Perils of Specialisation

This article is shared by Player Development Project

Many believe football is a sport in which early specialisation is important, but is it actually early specialisation or early engagement that players really need? TEDx Speaker, John O’Sullivan dispels some myths on this challenging topic.

The following image first came to my attention through Twitter, from Ohio University. It is amazing because the image portrays something that is widely known among experts, is widely discussed in coaching circles, and has certainly been written about many times. Yet this simple image still touched a nerve.

The image referred to by the author. By Urban Meyer, College Football Coach, Ohio State University.

My response to seeing it was “Amen, agreed, hopefully now people will start paying attention.”

If it takes an infographic of Urban Meyer’s football recruits at Ohio State to shift the paradigm in youth sports, then so be it. The image, which clearly demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of his recruits are multi-sport kids, is not new information, but it has caused quite a stir. We can summarise its general message like this:

To be an elite-level player at a college or in professional sport, you need a degree of exceptional athleticism. And the best medically, scientifically and psychologically recommended way to develop such all-around athleticism is ample free play and multiple sport participation as a child.

But why is this the case? Well let’s see what the experts say.

Coaches and Elite Athletes

Pete Carroll, former USC and now Seattle Seahawks Football coach, says: “The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?’ All of those things are important to me. I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience. I really, really don’t favour kids having to specialise in one sport. Even [at USC], I want to be the biggest proponent for two-sport athletes on the college level. I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”

“I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”  – Pete Carroll, Head Coach, Seattle Seahawks NFL Team

Dom Starsia, University of Virginia men’s lacrosse: “My trick question to young campers is always, ‘How do you learn the concepts of team offense in lacrosse or team defence in lacrosse in the off-season, when you’re not playing with your team?’ The answer is by playing basketball, by playing hockey and by playing soccer and those other team games, because many of those principles are exactly the same. Probably 95 percent [of our players] are multi-sport athletes. It’s always a bit strange to me if somebody is not playing other sports in high school.”

We can also cite examples of agreement from Tim Corbin, coach of NCAA Champion Vanderbilt Baseball; or Ashton Eaton, world record holder and gold medalist in the decathlon, who never participated in 6 of the 10 required decathlon events until he got to the University of Oregon; or Steve Nash, who got his first basketball at age 13 and credits his football background for making him a great basketball player. The list goes on and on.

The Medical Experts

As I have outlined in my ebook “Is it Wise to Specialize?” and echoed in world renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrew’s book Any Given Monday, there are strong medical reasons for not specialising at a young age:

  • Children who specialise in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists.
  • A study by Ohio State University found that children who specialised early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  • In a study of 1,200 youth athletes, Dr Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialisation in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialised were 70% to 93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
  • Children who specialise early are at a far greater risk for burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
  • Early sport specialisation in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen- Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right) earned his black-belt in taekwondo as a 17 year old in Sweden. Photo: hkratky
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right) earned his black-belt in taekwondo as a 17 year old in Sweden. Photo: hkratky

The Sport Scientists

In January 2015, I had the honour of sitting in a lecture with Manchester United Performance Coach Tony Strudwick, winner of 13 titles as the fitness coach for Manchester United’s first team. His advice was that a multi- sport background set up athletes for long-term success by lowering the rates of injuries and making them more adaptable to the demands of elite-level play. “More often than not,” he stated in a recent interview with SoccerWire.com, “the best athletes in the world are able to distinguish themselves from the pack thanks to a range of motor skills beyond what is typically expected in a given sport.” He recommended tumbling and gymnastic movements, as well as martial arts, basketball, and lacrosse as great crossover sports for football.

Here are some other advantages:

  • Better overall skills and ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills other sports and increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.
  • Smarter, more creative players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high-level teams look for.
  • Most college athletes come from a multi-sport background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child
  • 10,000 Hours is not a Rule: In his survey of the scientific literature regarding sport specific practice in The Sports Gene, author David Epstein finds that most elite competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Specifically, studies have shown that basketball (4,000), field hockey (4,000) and wrestling (6,000) all require far less than 10,000 hours.
  • There are Many Paths to Mastery: A 2003 study on professional ice hockey players found that while most pros had spent 10,000 hours or more involved in sports prior to age 20, only 3000 of those hours were involved in hockey specific deliberate practice (and only 450 of those hours were prior to age 12).

Are all sports the same?

No, they are not. They each require specific athletic, technical and tactical skill sets. Some sports, in order to be elite, require early specialisation, such as gymnastics and figure skating.

Other sports are so dependent upon physical prowess (American football, basketball, volleyball, rugby and others) that the technical skills and tactical knowhow can be developed later. There are many stories of athletes taking up these sports in their teens, even their 20s, and playing at a very high level because of the ability to transfer skills learned in one sport to another.

And then there are sports like hockey and football, which without a doubt require an early introduction (early engagement) to the sport. There are technical movements and skills that are most sensitive to improvement prior to a child’s growth spurt, and it is unlikely that a post-pubescent child is able to catch up if that is their first introduction to the sport.

Southampton’s Graziano Pelle is a former Italian ballroom-dancing champion. Photo: Robert Hertel
Southampton’s Graziano Pelle is a former Italian ballroom-dancing champion. Photo: Robert Hertel

“He used to get changed in the car after football training. At the age of 11, he and his sister Fabiana won the Italian Latin American Dance title… he is a giant (6ft 3in) who knows how to use the co-ordination he learned as a dancer.” – Pelle’s Youth Coach at Lecce, Roberto Rizzo

However, there is no evidence that pre-teen athletes in these sports should only play a single sport. As both the hockey evidence and the interview with Tony Strudwick mentioned above demonstrate, playing multiple sports early on sets these athletes up for longer-term success. They can better meet the demands of elite-level play.

They are less likely to get injured or burnout, and more likely to persist through the struggles needed to become a high-level performer.

If you want your child to play at a high level, then the best thing you can do is help them find a sport that best suits their abilities, and help create an environment that gives them the best chance of success. That environment is a playful multi-sport one. The evidence is in, and it’s pretty conclusive. It’s time for our youth sports organisations to not only allow but encourage multi-sport participation. Yes, it is tough on the bottom line. But ask yourself this: Is your bottom line worth more than the wellbeing of the children you have been entrusted with educating?

So what do you think? Should kids play multiple sports? Or only one? If you think specialisation is the right path prior to the teenage growth spurt (excluding gymnastics and figure skating), then by all means bring some evidence and links to the discussion. And if not, then how about some thoughts on how we can stand up and change the status quo that forces kids to choose far too young. Thanks to Urban Meyer and the poignant image of his recruiting class breakdown, we now have the opportunity to have this discussion. We have the opportunity to serve our children better, we have the responsibility to help them become better athletes by encouraging them to become all-around athletes, and we can do this by letting them play multiple sports.

Read more from John O’Sullivan, and learn more about Changing the Game Project HERE.

Image Credit: © Paparazzofamily | Dreamstime.com

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