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Attrition versus Retainment: Five Reasons Specialization Can be Harmful to Youth Athletes.


January 11, 2017

There are a lot of reasons to participate in youth sports.  They allow children to participate in something that makes them happy, keeps them active and healthy, and helps teach life lessons they might not see in other areas of their childhood.  However, while there are many programs that maintain the previous values and provide even more, there is a culture around youth sport that can be damaging to the development we may seek by putting children in these programs.  I’m not here to bash what youth sport is, I believe it is a wonderful outlet and experience that any child should be encouraged to participate in.  However, research tells us there is a dangerous path that can be taken that may not create the outcomes or experiences one may want for their child.

Now, this is not a full blow out of all the issues that can come with youth sport. Instead, I want to focus on one topic in particular; specializing.  There is a lot to be said about what specialization means to a sport.  For my sake, I see it as making a single activity or sport your main focus and/or only focus.  There is a point where specializing is appropriate and necessary, but according to a 2009 article in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, there is a point where specializing may be a hindrance to future performance.  In, “To Sample or Specialize? Seven Postulates about Youth Sport Activities that Lead to Continued Participation and Elite Performance,” we see that it may be a mistake to specialize at a young age, notably, prior to 13 or puberty (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009).

A few pieces seen in this research include:
  1. Prediction of long term results of athletes at a prepubescent or pubertal periods of growth is unreliable and shows no correlation to results or career length (Régnier, Salmela, and Russell, 1993).
  2. Early specialization before or during puberty eliminates individuals that may have the potential to develop into capable athletes having been given the chance through growth, maturation, and training during or after puberty (Wiersma, 2000).
  3. A study of Russian swimmers (Barynina & Vaitsekhovskii, 1992) demonstrated that athletes who began specialized training in swimming around age 12-13 spent a longer time on the national team and ended their sport careers later than swimmers who specialized at around age 9-10.
  4. Higher rates of injury are associate with intense and repetitive training at a young age (Law et al., 2007).
  5. Early specialization has been shown to shorten peak performance, increase drop out/burn out, and increase injuries in young athletes (Cote, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009).

Despite what we know, we can see many sports continue on this path of choosing to suggest specialization.  So what we see is an attrition rather than retainment.  Youth athletes are told early that they can or they can’t.  Economically it makes sense for youth sport coaches to train those who have “it” when they have 30 plus kids to train instead of focusing on those who don’t.  However, this process seems to have some flaws in long term development.  One of the best examples I use when asked about the selection and specialization in youth sport is the Little League World Series.  Since it’s inception in 1947 there have only been 42 players who have made it to Major League Baseball (Little League, 2017).  Even after adjusting for the time it would take a youth player in 1947 to be old enough to play professionally the average is still less than one player per year.  The Little League World Series is the top tournament in the world for youth baseball, yet, such a small number of players have actually made it to the professional ranks despite being selected so young.  So, what happened here?  Why do so few make it from a pool of elite youth players?  There are of course a number of factors.  However, we can see from the previous research what some of those may be.

So… what is the alternative? On the opposite end of the spectrum is sampling.  Allowing for kids to participate in multiple sports and activities outside of a single focus.  According to Tracking Football (2017), 88.5% of NFL draft picks played multiple sports in high school, even after the time when specialization could be appropriate.  That’s a large percentage, and seems to sharply contrast what our suppositions are when looking to make it to such a level.

Despite just aspirations of making it to the professional ranks, for children to have happier and healthier relationships with activity and sport, an environment that allows for sampling can provide this.  According to Cote, Lidor, and Hackfort (2009), children who participate in multiple sports present with less injury, lower burnout, longer careers, and most importantly, higher inherent enjoyment.

Regardless of your goals to train next great athlete, and/or to provide and environment for activity, socialization, and fun for your child/athlete, research tells us that specialization at a young age is not the answer.  An environment that encourages sampling and exploration provides the opportunities to kids that an otherwise strict over focus on a single activity would not.

References:

Cote, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, p. 07-17.

Little League (2007). Retrieved from: http://www.littleleague.org/worldseries/pdf/From_LL_to_Majors.pdf

Tracking Football (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.trackingfootball.com/blog/88-5-2016-nfl-draft-picks-played-multiple-sports-high-school/