Is Early Specialization Killing Youth Sports?

Written by on August 18, 2011 in Coaching, Fitness, Youth & Sport - 1 Comment

I was standing in line at the the local coffee shop when I overheard a woman in front of me brag that she had traveled 200 miles to watch her 7 year old play a soccer game. It brought back memories of how a few years ago, my then 7 year old daughter could not find a spot on the local team with her friend only because she had never played organized sport before. It did not matter that I had played collegiate soccer and coached youth soccer before.

I wonder where we are going with our youth these days? It has been said that it takes at least 10,000hours and 10 years to master anything. Have we taken this too far? According ESPN writer Tom Farrey (2008), the new generation of kids are starting everything from poker to watching violent movies at younger ages than their parents.

World titles for tots are just one manifestation of the new thinking, which holds that it’s never too early to train children as competitors. There are12-year-olds driving race cars. Eleven-year-olds are turning pro in skateboarding. Ten-year-olds get recruited by college basketball programs. Nine-year-olds hire professional coaches. Eight-year-olds play 75 baseball games a year. Six-year-olds have personal trainers.Five-year-olds play soccer year round. Four-year-old tumblers compete at the AAU Junior Olympics. Three-year-olds enter their third year of swim lessons. Two-year-olds have custom golf clubs. (Farrey, 2008)

The question at hand is where is all this leading to? Are our young athletes better for it? The truth is that youth obesity is on the rise. Nearly everyone agrees that an active life style helps battle obesity. However youth sport participation is high in America, but most children drop out of sports by the time they reach middle school. Consequently, this is the same time that 30% of all American kids are obese.

The current American youth sport system is now built on early specialization. This system is flawed. It blocks out late developers from ever entering a sport. It does not nurture the athlete. Even worse, it fails to result in a large pool of elite athletes or life long participators in the sport. With the exception of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, The amount of medals won by USA athletes has been on a steady decline since 1980.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Canadians to the north call it Long Term Athlete Development (see the Child Athlete). The Europeans know it as Multilateral Development.The idea is simple. Young athletes should play multiple sports. The research is clear. If training begins with a strong foundation in multilateral training and is then sequenced properly, the athlete will be able to achieve much higher levels of physical preparation,technical mastery, and ultimately higher levels of performance (Bompa& Haff, 2009).

Bompa (2009) further quotes several studies of which two are very significant. The first was a 14 yearlong study of East German youth ages 9 to 12. They were divided into two groups. The first was an early specialization group. The second was a multilateral group. The study concluded that the multilateral group had overall long-term success in sports. The Russian study was similar. They found that youth (<18 years) that achieved their best performance at younger ages were not able to duplicate them once they reached senior level (>18 years), and many retired before reaching 18 years old.

The Russian model of Multilateral Development is simple:

  • Athletes start training at 7 to 8 years old. They participate in various sports such as soccer, cross country skiing, running, skating, swimming, and cycling;

  • From 10 -13 years old, the children also added additional team sports, gymnastics, rowing, and track and field;

  • Specialization begins between 15 and 17 years old without neglecting earlier sport activities. The best performances are achieved 5 to 8 years after specialization.
  • Early SpecializationMultilateral Development or LTAD
    Quick performance improvement.Slower performance improvement
    Best performance acheived at 15 to 16 years old.Best performance after the age of 18.
    Inconsistent performance in competition.Consistent progression in performance and competition.
    hing incident of "burn-out" and quitting before the age of 18.Longer athletic career.
    Increased risk of injury due to forced adaptation and lack of physiological development.Fewer injuries as a result of progressive loading paterns and overall physiological development.

    Figure 1: Comparison Between Early Specialization andMultilateral Development adaptedfrom Periodization:Theory and Methodology of Training.” By Bompa, Tudor and Haff, G.5thedition.


    In North America we are burning our athletes out before they can reach their full potential. Furthermore, the early specialization model currently used does not allow for late physical development or late interest in the sport. As result, we neglect a large pool of athletes just because they did have access to training when they were three years old, or were to small at seven years old. If America wants to be competitive in the future, it is time to change the way we think about our youth and sports.

    Bompa,T. O., & Haff, G. (2009). Periodization: theory andmethodology of training (5th ed.). Champaign, IL., IL: HumanKinetics.
    Farrey,T. (2008). Game on: the all-American race to make championsof our children. New York, NY: ESPN Books.

    Wayne Pedranti

    About Wayne Pedranti

    Wayne Pedranti is a traditional Naturopath and a Master Herbalist. He is a Master Level Certified Sports Nutrition Adviser educated at the Cory Holly Institute. He has been cycling for well over 20 years, and is a licensed coach with USA Cycling and USA Track and Field. He has a Masters Degree in Coaching Education at Ohio University. He uses his training on natural health and coaching to build a comprehensive training plans that builds health, fitness, and performance.

    One Comment on "Is Early Specialization Killing Youth Sports?"

    1. admin February 27, 2012 at 21:41 · Reply

      Thanks. We try.

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