Early Specialization – How Not to Build an Elite Athlete

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.

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: College athlete influencers

“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.”

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.

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