It seems like youth athletes of today are ‘specializing’ in their respective sport earlier and earlier. All of them seem to have the aspirations of being a professional athlete. But does it come at a price? Is it worth it to specialize in a sport then train specifically for that sport from such a young age? NCAA athletes that played high school sports move on to Division I sports at a very low rate: 2.1% for baseball, 1.0% for basketball and 2.7% for football (1). So, is specializing at a specific sport and training for that sport all its hyped up to be?
I am not against sport specialization, I am against sport specialization at a young age. Kids should play all kinds of sports up until and even through high school if their ability allows them to. They should not give up other sports and focus on one at the age of six. And while they are young, they don’t need to focus on sport specific training in the weight room. They need to work on basic movement patterns while getting stronger and more powerful. If you are strong and powerful in the weight room, that can translate to the field, no matter what field it is.
First off, specializing in a sport and training specifically for that sport does no guarantee future success or even put them in the best position for future success. Sometimes, the parent is the driving force behind the specialization, even though it may be against the athletes wants. Some of them are trying to relive their high school glory days. Other times, the athlete has a high drive to specialize. In both of these scenarios, it can lead to burnout, where no matter how good the athlete is, they just don’t feel like doing it anymore. Avoiding specialization at a young age, focusing on general strength and power in the weight room and having a legitimate off-season can help avoid burnout (2).
The idea behind sport-specific training is to duplicate or imitate a specific skill or aspect of a sport in a weight room environment with the intention of it transferring to the playing field. So far this sounds ideal, right? When you specifically train for one sport, you miss out on so many other movement patterns that might not directly be involved in your sport. When an athlete walks into the weight room, they should only be there to get stronger and more powerful, regardless of sport. This strength and power will show on the field, even if you didn’t specifically train for your sport. The first step is to have athletes push, pull, squat, hinge and carry in the weight room.
When you miss out on some of these basic movements in the weight room, you may be more prone to injuries and overuse. Imagine going to practice and working on certain movements repeatedly. Then going to the weight room and doing those same exact movements repeatedly, for years. You are bound to get hurt at some point because of the repetitiveness of the specific movements and lack of multi-joint exercises. These can be as minor as something that just needs rest, or it can be as serious as surgery. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine shows that the rate for Tommy John surgery (3) is increasing at an average of six percent a year in the 15-19-year-old age group. This major spike has been at least partly attributed to specialization.
Now sport specific training in the weight room will get you ready for your specific sport, since that is essentially all you are doing. And they probably will see a decent increase in their skill level. However, we’ve all seen those athletes that are amazing at their sport, but only at their sport. Athletes should be well-rounded; a baseball player should possess the skill to be able to go out and shoot basketball or throw a football. Youth now seem to be more baseball , basketball or football “players” and not “athletes”.
Sometimes, kids need to be kids and not focus all their energy on one sport. Encourage them to play other sports and don’t worry about sport-specific training in the weight room. Focus on them getting stronger and focus on them having fun playing sports. And they need an off-season, where they don’t play their main sport, but it needs to be a legitimate OFF-season. He/she’s not going to miss out on his contract because he played basketball instead of training specifically for football in the off-season.
1. NCAA (2018). Estimated probability of competing in college athletics. Retrieved from: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-college-athletics
2. Hess, J. (2015). Youth sports: Examining the pros and cons of sport specialization. Retrieved from: http://info.ridgeviewmedical.org/ridgeviewblog/pros-and-cons-of-sport-specialization
3. Hodgins, J.L., Vitale, M., Arons, R.R., & Ahmad, C.S. (2016). Epidemiology of medial ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction: A 10-year study in New York state. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(3): 729.
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