Friday, February 13, 2015

Sport Specialization: Why Are We Still Talking About This?

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This picture has been going around the interwebz for a little while now, and I thought it would be fitting to discuss the ideas behind sport specialization for young athletes.


(Photo Credit - highschoolsportsstuff.areavoices.com)


First and foremost, this graphic is great, especially considering it's coming from the reigning National Champions.

I coached college football for a year, and I can tell you for certain, we looked for multiple sport athletes.  During the off-season, coaches are continually going to basketball, baseball, soccer, track and field events to see the athleticism of these athletes in a different setting. 

How an athlete moves and performs in a different sport tells you a ton about their overall athleticism, movement skills, coordination, body control and spatial awareness.

Plus, there are some many skills that transfer over from these other sports that assist in the athletes main sport.  Coaches at the college level definitely prefer an athlete who plays multiple sports or at least is active in some other endeavor throughout the year.

Now I've written about sport specialization for another online outlet HERE, but today I will go into some different aspects of specialization.

Let's first start with what I hear from many parents and athletes...

If I don't specialize, I will fall behind 
and hurt my chances of playing in High School or College.

Well if this is true, let's look at a few statistics and graphics
  • 88% of Olympians stated playing multiple sports was valuable to their athletic development
  • Between ages 10-14, most Olympians played an average of 3 sports 
  • A UCLA sports specialization study surveying 296 NCAA Division I male and female athletes, average age 19, found that 88% participated in an average of two to three sports as children, and 70% did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12 
  • In a Swedish study by Launder it was stated, “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"
This shows that during development, it is valuable to play many sports and get exposed to the many different athletic skills each sport can provide.  It also shows that sport specialization greatly increases chances of athlete burnout and quitting the sport before even getting to high school varsity.

How about now take a look some of the best athlete's of all-time...
  • Walter Payton did not play high school football until his Junior year, partly because his older brother, Eddie, was the teams running back and he didn't want to compete against his own brother. Walter also ran track and wouldn't play on the football team unless the coach allowed him to still play in the band.
    Photo credit: sciencewitness.com
  • Wayne Gretzky, the best hockey player of all-time, played lacrosse, and was an outstanding baseball player. In fact he was offered a contract by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1980, and what did he learn from Lacrosse? “In those days you could be hit from behind in lacrosse, as well as cross-checked, so you had to learn how to roll body checks for self-protection”. Gretzky enhanced his ability to avoid checks from his time spent playing lacrosse, maybe that's why he was one of the most elusive players in hockey history. 
  • Michael Jordan - We all know Jordan's ability in basketball. Despite most contending his professional baseball career was a flop, it's still pretty amazing he was able to compete at a high level despite not playing competitive baseball for over 10-years. He competed at the Double A level and if you ask people involved with the Birmingham Barons, they all say he could have made an appearance in the big leagues if he continued to play and develop for a few more years. 
  • Wilt Chamberlain is known for scoring 100 points in a game and being one of basketball's most dominant players of all-time, but did you also know he was an elite track and field athlete. He ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, shot-putted 56 feet, tripled jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years. 
  • Willie Mays, to this day, is one of baseball's greatest players. Before that stardom, Mays also excelled in basketball and football during high school. 
  • Let's not forget multiple sport legends Dave Winfield, Bo Jackson, and Deion Sanders. And if you talk about multi-sport legends, and have to start with Jim Thorpe. Thorpe might have been the greatest athlete of all-time winning an Olympic Gold Medal in both the Decathlon and Pentathlon (later taken away due to amateur status), played professional football, baseball, and basketball. 
  • Photo credit: giantbomb.com
  • Derek Jeter was the starting point guard on his high school basketball team 
  • Hall of Fame wide receiver, Lynn Swann, did ballet. Is it a coincidence that he's one of the most graceful and smooth players of all-time? I think not.
  • Mike Leach credits soccer for Wes Welker’s quickness and vision for part of his success in football
  • Steve Nash grew up skateboarding and playing soccer 

How about some of the tops players in each sport? Let's take a look...

Here are the top 10 players in each of America's most popular sports. Fair warning, these lists were compiled a few years back, so you may not agree with how they stand currently, but that's beside the point. These are the premier athletes in their respective sport, and it's to show how many were multiple sport athletes, not to debate their ranking. You will see next to their name is additional sports they played during their youth or high school careers.

Top 10 players in the NBA

1. Lebron James – Was an All-State High School Football player
Photo credit: rsvlts.com

2. Kevin Durant – Football, Soccer. His brother and him would go to the Boys and Girls club and participate in the various after school activities provided there.

3. James Harden - No other sports indicated

4. Chris Paul - Football

5. Derrick Rose - Baseball

6. Kobe Bryant – Soccer.  Lived in Italy as a youth – has said if his family continued to live there he would have pursued a professional career in soccer.

7. Kevin Love - Football

8. Blake Griffin - Football, baseball and basketball.

9. Russell Westbrook -No other sports indicated

10. Stephen Curry - No other sports indicated

That's 7/10 playing multiple sports


Top 10 players in the NFL

1. Aaron Rodgers – Soccer, Basketball, and Baseball

2. Peyton Manning – Basketball and Baseball

3. Calvin Johnson - Baseball
Photo credit: mlb.com

4. Tom Brady – Baseball – Picked in the 18th round in the 1995 draft by the Montreal Expos

5. JJ Watt – Basketball, Baseball, Hockey, and Track (State Champion in the Shot Put) – On a side note, I competed against JJ in High School in Football and Track!

6. Marshawn Lynch - Lynch was a four-sport star in football, basketball, track and wrestling.  Ran a 10.94 100m Dash, High Jumped 6'4, and Long Jumped 20'10.

7. Richard Shermann - Track and Field - State Champion Triple Jumper (50'7ft).  Also Long Jumped (23'4ft), 110m High Hurdle (13.99), and 100m Dash (10.77)

8. Luke Kuechly - No other sports indicated

9. Russell Wilson - Baseball.  Drafted by Colorado Rockies in 4th Round!

10. AJ Green - 3-Sport Athlete - Football, Basketball, Track

That's 9/10 playing multiple sports.


Top 10 players in MLB

1. Miguel Cabrera - Basketball and volleyball. He was offered a pro contract from a volleyball team in Switzerland

2. Clayton Kershaw – No other sports indicated

3. Mike Trout - Basketball

4. Victor Martinez - No other sports indicated

5. Ryan Braun – Basketball, Soccer, Football

6. Buster Posey – Football, Basketball, Soccer

7. Andrew McCutchen - 3-Sport athlete - football, ran track, and baseball team.  Member of the state championship 4 x 100 relay team and earned All-County honors in football.

8. Felix Hernandez - No other sports indicated

Photo credit: maxpreps.com
9. Giancarlo Stanton - As a junior, it looked as if Giancarlo’s path to the pros might be easiest on the gridiron or hardwood. He was an emerging star on the basketball averaging around 20 points a game as an all-conference power forward and on the football team an all-conference defensive back and a sure-handed receiver.

10. Adam Wainwright - For a while, it looked like Adam’s future might be as a football player. He was named All-State as a receiver in his junior and senior years. He was also an All-Region placekicker.

That's 7/10 playing multiple sports

Overall in the 3-major professional sports, 23 out of the top 30 athletes in the World played multiple sports growing up! 

Not to mention, you can find quotes and stories from these athletes touting how crucial and important playing these other sports were to their development as an athlete.

Still think specialization is the route to take?

Well lets look at another negative aspect of specialization...

Injuries

The University of North Carolina teamed up with Little League Baseball to do a 5-year study on the effects of pitching and injury. The study followed not only youngsters (8-13), but also high school, and college aged pitchers. The pitchers were surveyed through the year on pitch counts, types of pitches (curve ball), and occurrence of injury.

What they found is that pitch count is directly related to injury, and Little Leagues that implemented a pitch count rule, reduced arm injuries by 50%!

The biggest problem found by this study is the amount of kids playing on multiple teams or traveling teams.  Little League Programs can control their league games, but the problem is many teams are playing weekend tournaments and/or kids are playing on multiple teams.

The League's cannot control the pitch count outside their own League's games, and because of this they found a clear correlation between playing on multiple teams and overuse and arm injuries.

So the problem is not in playing a sport, it's specializing in it - playing on multiple teams, in multiple tournaments, going to “elite” showcases, and playing year-round.

In particular, the developing skeletal system is especially at risk, with bone and growth plate injuries previously not observed in young athletes being seen with alarming and increasing frequency. These findings and other similar studies have led the American Academy of Pediatrics to suggest that athletes under the age of 12-13 avoid specialization altogether, opting instead for a broader based and sometimes less intense plan for athletics.

Before the adult-dominated era of youth sports, "We didn't talk about these kinds of injuries, at least in the [medical] literature," notes Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA's Sports Medicine Center and physician for UCLA's sport teams. “Little League shoulder, tennis elbow, ACL tears; you don't see it unless kids are in an organized sport," notes DiFiori. “The best data we have would suggest that the odds of achieving elite levels with this method are exceedingly poor.  In fact, some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages.”

Recent findings provide ample evidence to the fact that early specialization can be linked to chronic injury, burnout, and early withdrawal from sport participation. Chronic overuse injuries account for approximately 50% of new injuries in pediatric sports medicine practices.

So, while these youth systems aims to develop the future professional athletes, the reality is that most children will never reach an elite level.  In contrast, currently, 70% of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13.

Why?

Burnout, over zealous coaches/parents, injury, lose fun in playing the sport.

These kids not only fail to continue to develop into mature athletes, but they leave sports altogether which contributes to a lack of fitness into adulthood.

It's a double edged sword - many of these kids burn out before reaching some of the best athletic days of their life, and these injuries or burnout or overzealous coaching/parenting lead them away from sports in general and from long-term physical activity, which is never good for overall health, well-being, and social aspects of their life.



The more a player develops their general athletic skills, the higher their ceiling is for their chosen sport. This is why playing multiple sports and getting involved in youth fitness/exploration programs are so vital.  They provide a well-rounded and balanced approach to development and allow young athletes to be exposed to many different things which help prevent injury, avoid burnout, and develop a balanced, life-long athlete.

Go Get 'Em!




3 comments:

  1. Geez, didn't know so many great players of today played multiple sports. Really enjoyed this post. Great work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lets not forget Tim Duncan was a swimmer(and a good one, too). Antonio Gates and Basketball.

    But, I have another question. I love the article and agree with the research. As a high school and age- group swim coach, I encourage my swimmers to play other sports. Many are active tri-athletes. Now, as a parent of young kids, I have a daughter (11) in USA gymnastics and a son (8) in USA Hockey. USA Hockey and USA Swimming both encourage the athletes to play other sports...but I would like to know more about gymnastics for little girls. I can't find anywhere that USAG talks about this. In fact, I think that they not only encourage, but promote, and darn near require these 6-12 year old girls to ONLY do gymnastics. I see so many injuries on girls at my daughter's gym. It is an elite gym that routinely churns out D-1 scholorship athletes and national level gymnasts. But when I sat in a parent meeting when my daughter made the team, the requirement was 4 practices per week for 4-5 hours per practice. No time to play any other sport or do any other school activities. Basically, if you can't commit....don't do it. And I have heard the same from members of other gyms as well. High injury rates, high burn out, etc. This all said, obviouly USAG is doing a great job with their women's program based on the last 12 years and 3 olympics.

    Your thoughts or findings on this?
    Thanks!
    --Rob--

    ReplyDelete
  3. Lets not forget Tim Duncan was a swimmer(and a good one, too). Antonio Gates and Basketball.

    But, I have another question. I love the article and agree with the research. As a high school and age- group swim coach, I encourage my swimmers to play other sports. Many are active tri-athletes. Now, as a parent of young kids, I have a daughter (11) in USA gymnastics and a son (8) in USA Hockey. USA Hockey and USA Swimming both encourage the athletes to play other sports...but I would like to know more about gymnastics for little girls. I can't find anywhere that USAG talks about this. In fact, I think that they not only encourage, but promote, and darn near require these 6-12 year old girls to ONLY do gymnastics. I see so many injuries on girls at my daughter's gym. It is an elite gym that routinely churns out D-1 scholorship athletes and national level gymnasts. But when I sat in a parent meeting when my daughter made the team, the requirement was 4 practices per week for 4-5 hours per practice. No time to play any other sport or do any other school activities. Basically, if you can't commit....don't do it. And I have heard the same from members of other gyms as well. High injury rates, high burn out, etc. This all said, obviouly USAG is doing a great job with their women's program based on the last 12 years and 3 olympics.

    Your thoughts or findings on this?
    Thanks!
    --Rob--

    ReplyDelete