Just in the last week I have had a few separate conversations with athletes and parents about the dangers of early specialization. One athlete, who is 13 and going into 8th grade, said she plays soccer year round because she wants a scholarship. Another parent, after I explained to her how early specialization often times limits an athletes athletic potential (many polls show Olympic and professional athletes played 2 – 4 different sports growing up before ultimately finding their niche sport), commented that I don’t live in the real world (Me!? Not living in the real world?! Can’t be!) Yet another parent, whose son is going into 8th grade and has yet to choose a sport, is worried that her son will be left behind because he has yet to commit to one sport.
I have had recent conversations with some of the best Physical Therapists in the area and when they talk to local club teams they all tell them that if they want their athletes to stop getting injured so often then they need to stop playing so much. According to the top orthopedic surgeon to the pros Dr. James Andrews, the number of sport related surgeries has increased 5 – 7 times since 2000. That is not nifty. Yet sport coaches, parents, and athletes keep pushing early specialization to the detriment of their athletes well being. This isn’t new news. Here is a recent article from The New York Times about the topic.
I’m left to wonder, if, as a Strength & Conditioning Coach, am I fighting for the losing side in a battle that has already been fought? What I mean is, are we officially in an age where we simply have to accept the fact that kids will specialize in their sport early and play year round and are put through professional type conditioning programs? We don’t have to like it, but it might be time to accept it and focus our attention on the role a great athletic development program can have in helping these athletes become more durable.
Perhaps the Strength & Conditioning community should shift our focus away from discouraging youngsters from specializing and, instead, focus on the importance of a proper strength program to support their sport. This, in itself, will help athletes become more durable. When young athletes have advanced sport skill for their age but lack the strength and stability to perform a push up, squat, pull up, or lunge they become much more prone to injury. When athletes have spent so much time practicing a sport that they “play fast” but lack the control to stop and have not yet learned proper change of direction technique they become much more prone to injury. These skills and more are what athletes can gain from participating in a dedicated athletic development program.
So that’s it. I am waving the white flag. I will no longer try to convince young athletes and parents to “Respect the Seasons” and play multiple sports. I will instead continue to talk about the importance of participating in a well-structured athletic development program. It might not be perfect, but it’s certainly better.