Many Olympic development programs have moved away from early specialization and are looking to diversify the athletic experiences of their youth. Some researchers speak of the value of multiple sports training to avoid overuse injury. Multiple sport training helps to strengthen the athletic range and capacities of our youth, so that when they eventually choose their desired sport, they are versatile, skilled and resilient.
We have so much more to study about training and peak performance before we commit our youth to extreme, specialized training in one sport. Critical variables such as the number of hours of playing and training, rest, creative play, implicit vs. explicit motivation, and implementation of competition are all areas that need much further study. In a study we conducted at MGH in Boston on minor league baseball players, the average age of specialization among these top level athletes was approximately 15 years-old. Many played football and basketball through their high school careers.
Specialization and College Athletes
I do believe that more and more collegiate bound athletes are choosing to specialize in one sport at younger ages, even though a lot of college coaches will say that they prefer multiple sport athletes. And, while many college coaches may indicate that the skill level of their recruits is higher among specialized athletes, I am not at all convinced that the college coaches are actually getting a better athletic result. Do their specialized recruits have the physical and mental fortitude to weather the challenges of long seasons? How do they deal with adversity, of playing in lesser roles? Do they stick with the program for four years, and how do they compare with the multiple sport recruits? I would like to see a study of this.
A recent study through collaboration of the NCAA and the Aspen Institute reports that up to half of Division 1 athletes specialized in their sport by the age of 12. But, many regretted their decision – some siting that they participated in too much competition. Some might argue that a burned out athlete with regrets at a fine college is better than an underachieving athlete who wasn’t pushed enough at a lesser college. Many experts are not convinced that the former makes our children any happier or in a better position to live a well-balanced, fulfilling life.
This article was adapted by Dr. Ginsburg’s original posting on the US Lacrosse website.