The Myth of Youth Sports Specialization




Youth Sports Specialization

The IYCA Blog has been jumping of late with some great training-based conversation.


I wanted you to read an exchange I had with a reader named Keith.


It was in reference to my article on Early youth sports Specialization a few days ago.


Keith offered some great insight and thought. Here’s what he had to say –


"So, playing devil’s advocate once again, why is it that the world’s greatest swimmers have typically been identified when they were preteen, often then,setting world records and competing in world class events as mere teenagers, especially the ladies.


How many world and Olympic champion gymnasts and divers average 14 years of age. I wonder if plasticity really means that a child athlete can adapt to, cope with, respond to, recover from, progress with, focus on and develop with, all of the things in one particular sport, and become superior in that sport, without participating in other sports. Doing so like the 5 year old Italian child learns English perfectly by being immersed in that one thing.


I know I’m talking about world class athletes but they had to come from somewhere and mostly they were young athletes with a gift through which they were unilaterally developed within their one sport.


While I myself have participated in many sports and have coached many sports and I believe in multilateral exposure especially as a means of talent identification, I still need convincing that the multilateral approach is necessary or preferable to develop high level athletes in a given sport.


Still liked the article Brian. It keeps the wheels oiled in this old noggin. Keep them coming!"


Here was my response –


"Don’t often have time to respond to this blog (unfortunately), but Keith’s message required a post….


Well thought out, my friend!


Here are the key points to your questions:


1) Sports are broken down into various categories within historical LTAD Models. You have used 3 examples (gymnastics, diving and swimming) in which early elite level is standard (figure skating, especially women, would be another). This is often due to pubertal body transformations being a prohibitive factor for success. Thus pre-adolescent exclusivity has historically been considered important. Having said that, this does not represent a truism for all sporting activities at large.


2) It is very easy to point out examples of the very few Olympians who succeeded at a young age, but the entire sport and participation within that sport must be held in context to gain a fair and reasonable perspective. How many hundreds of thousands of kids exclusively participate in the sports you mentioned but make absolutely nothing significant of a career? The percentage is incredibly slanted.


3) Pursuant to point 2, a number of former child stars in these specific sports face an adulthood riddled with injuries, self-esteem issues and body dimorphic concerns. Many more young prodigies the world has never heard of have had careers ended due to overuse injuries resulting from exclusively in similar loaded training (i.e. sports exclusivity).


4) There is a distinction between youth sports specialization and exclusivity. Having trained Olympians myself and studied cyclic training models of other Olympians (from various sports) I can tell you that even the most awe inspiring athletes we have ever seen (including the young one’s) are seldom trained in an exclusive fashion. That does not mean they participate in other sports necessarily, but they do have intelligent Coaches who plan general loaded stimulus for as much as 50% of the training system in certain parts of the year/Olympic preparation.


Thank you for your intelligent and well-articulated response, Keith!"


See the difference between Sports Specialization and Sports Exclusivity?


It’s a VERY important distinction.



‘Till next time,


Youth Sports Specialization

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