Does early sport specialization reduce athleticism

The current trend toward early specialization is hurting development of athleticism

We have some terms in sport that get used a lot without the benefit of any operational definition. For example, colleagues might know what you're talking about when you say athleticism but they would be hard pressed to explain what this word means to someone who wasn't 'in the know'. Even among sport practitioners I doubt that there is any consensus as to what athleticism really means.

But lacking a good definition of the word doesn't stem discussion about how athleticism seems to be missing in many of today's young athletes. Sport blogs and forums contain frequent posts lamenting its absence and recalling fondly how athletes of yore were so much better. So what is it exactly that some claim current athletes are lacking? What's missing? And, perhaps more importantly, why now? Claims that the athletes themselves have changed are hard to believe; what is far more likely is that the conditions under which athletes develop have changed.

In this letter I want to discuss what athleticism is, how I think it is acquired, and possible reasons why some coaches think many athletes simply don't have it. So let's get some kind of definition on the table so you know what I'm talking about:

What is athleticism?

The simplest definition of athleticism is, "the physical qualities that are characteristic of athletes, such as strength, fitness, and agility. But there's more. Athleticism is a comprehensive concept that can be applied to all sports even though it may be interpreted differently depending on the type of sport involved. It has both physical and cognitive components that are developed by degree i.e. it's not an all or nothing quality, one athlete can exhibit more athleticism than another. According to the Informed Practitioner in Sport athleticism consists of at least the following components:

  • Mobility - flexibility, strength, stability, and balance.
  • Movement dexterity - precision, touch/feel, timing.
  • Fundamental movements skills - locomotion, jump/land, squat, lunge, balance, throw, catch, push, pull, and twisting or rotation.
  • Being able to devise movement solutions - including body awareness (position, orientation, sensation), strategy and decision making, autonomy (being able to act without external instruction) and perception/action coupling (mostly used in open skill sports).

Where does athleticism come from?

Opinions vary about where athleticism originates. Some think that, like talent, we're born with it, or, at least some of us are. 'Being born with it' though only mystifies the whole process of training and performance and ultimately serves no purpose in understanding athleticism or its origin. The same arguments that claim talent is an innate quality are used to make a similar claim about athleticism. I have written before about why I think talent doesn't exist. You can read that argument here.

Athleticism, on the other hand, does exist but we're certainly not born with it. It's a learned group of skills and abilities. We develop it by learning and practicing a number of different sport skills and movements, participating in competition, and learning various kinds of game strategies. It is similar in many ways to physical literacy but with a more specific application to sport and competition. But here's the thing: Athleticism is built by participating in a variety of different sports and physical activities. By participating in only one sport, say soccer or diving, an athlete certainly can build up a list of skills, however it will never be as long a list or as robust as the athlete who participates in soccer and diving. And since athletic skills and movements compliment each other, multi-sport athletes will eventually exhibit higher levels of athleticism than single sport athletes.

But here's the thing: Athleticism is built by participating in a variety of different sports and physical activities.

Athleticism is learned

Traditionally athleticism is developed by athletes who participate in a number of activities. For a long time this development just sort of happened, it was a consequence of the way sport was structured. High school sports in the United States, for example, were conducted in seasons with many of the same students participating in football, then basketball, and baseball -- the cultural centerpieces of American sport. Each of these sports has elements of the components mentioned above. Athletes who played all three sports developed a well rounded base of movement and competitive skills. The sports complemented each other, allowed athletes to participate in some form of training and competition throughout the school year, and provided a strong background for other athletic challenges the athletes might pursue on their own. This annual pattern of multiple sport opportunities also appeared at the youth level with several different sports offered throughout the year both at schools and local recreation programs.

The benefit of a system like this cannot be overstated: Athletes engage in a range of activities that have different performance requirements, thus giving them a long, generalized preparation period prior to later specialization in a single activity.

For most athletes though this has changed. School based sport is seeing more athletes every year participating in only one sport and they are doing it on an almost year-round basis. This is being driven both by changes in the way school sports are adopting collegiate and professional training regimens as well as the belief that specialization will increase the chances of winning a college athletic scholarship.

High school football, for example, has a training and competitive schedule that spans most of the year. Beginning with several weeks of pre-season conditioning during the summer prior to the competitive season that usually runs until November. Spring training gets underway soon after the beginning of the year with some kind of competition wrapping it up before school vacation starts. After taking a few weeks break it's back to pre-season again. Footballers don't have any time, and little encouragement by coaches to participate in anything other than football and the ancillary training associated with it. Other sports follow similar schedules. The high school multi-sport athlete is disappearing.

At the youth level, commercial sport clubs, run by professional, full-time coaches, now offer training and competitive seasons year-round and usually in just one sport; and other commercial interests offer athletic conditioning to athletes of all ages outside of the school or youth club context.

The generalization pathway is being phased out and athleticism is going with it. What was once an easy quality to develop in youngsters now has to be deliberately planned if young athletes are to continue developing it.

Generalization is out, specialization is in

For a very long time the accepted pathway for athlete development was based on the concept of generalization to specialization. Young athletes would begin their sport participation by sampling several different kinds of activities, building a sound base of athletic ability, and eventually finding one or two sports they enjoy and perform well in before they began to specialize. The generalization period allowed for the development of athleticism which later could be put to good use during specialization.

Lately the pathway has flipped. Young athletes are now participating in only one sport, thus developing athleticism to a much lesser degree. And, as often happens, the young athlete discovers he doesn't like the one sport he spent a number of years in and decides to try something else. This concept of specialization to generalization usually doesn't turn out well because the athlete has only a limited degree of athleticism and finds that any new sport he joins requires skills he simply doesn't have.

The system now supports, almost exclusively, an early specialization pathway that hooks youngsters into a sport -- and only that sport -- from the time they first join. This shift is happening for several reasons:

  • Sport clubs have to stay in business. Clubs are reluctant to encourage athletes to leave and try something else. Athletes and their families are customers and the business has to have enough of them to sustain itself. Encouraging athlete-clients to follow this path would mean a loss of revenue. Additionally, clubs and coaches are well aware of current trends and sending athletes off to sample other activities in other clubs might very well mean that they never come back.
  • A single sport choice is the easy one. With early specialization becoming a bigger part of the youth sport landscape it's getting harder to be a generalist. To sample sport activities now might require finding several different sport clubs all of which will have their own version of year-round training and competition, internal politics, and philosophical outlook on the role their sport plays in a youngsters life. For many families it's just easier to find a single sport/club and stick with it rather than switching several times per year.
  • Parents see sport clubs as offering a higher quality experience. Clubs tend to be professionally operated by directors and coaches trained in the club's specific activity. Many coaches are full-time employees (or they own the club) and are certified or licensed to teach or coach the sport. Parents see this as being a higher quality product than the local recreation league, so if they can afford it they join the sport club.
  • Youngsters who take up the early specialization path make it harder for schools and municipalities to offer sport programs. Fewer participants mean teams cannot be formed and less revenue is available to run the programs.
  • Youngsters do improve in a specialized training regimen. Because of this it's difficult to convince parents to switch to another sport for a while because their child would return to the original sport with less ability than peers they were equal to a few months prior. This does not change the fact that as children get older these differences in ability tend to equal out.

Specialization also has some physical drawbacks. In the multi-sport model, athleticism was baked into the system; it could be developed on its own, almost like a training effect. Now with an increasing emphasis on early specialization athletes are not developing the levels of athleticism their predecessors once did. This is what coaches are talking about in the sport blogs and forums, but the athletes have not changed; it's the system itself that's changed.

Early specialization and training

Quicker improvement makes the early specialization pathway attractive. Unfortunately this improvement is short lived. Not surprisingly, when children get early sport training they perform better than their peers. Parents and some coaches see the encouraging result and believe they have found the Holy Grail. The assumption is that this success will continue during the years ahead and if all goes well it may lead to college scholarship offers, or even a professional sports contract.

It's not unreasonable to think this way but everything we know right now says it doesn't happen like that. Early performance advantages don't last. Soon enough those who did not have early instruction or training in an activity catch up with those who did. Early specialization is one of those things that sound like it should be true but probably isn't.

Early success is not a predictor of future performance. If being an elite level performer when it counts is the goal -- usually beginning in the late teens -- then youngsters should not sacrifice athleticism for a brief period of early success.

Another drawback resulting from early specialization is an increase in overuse injuries and burnout. Several years ago USA Hockey produced a video about their American Development Model, which stressed the need for child athletes to participate in multiple activities while young before they specialize in hockey later on.

Are there solutions?

Bringing athleticism back into developmental sport has to occur if today's athletes are going to be able to perform as well as their predecessors. This will not be easy though. A quality that is essential to sound performance has been evolved out of the system that relies on it. Getting it back in will not be easy. I see two possible solutions. One is expensive and the other might just be a dream:

Incorporate professional physical conditioning into club sport programs. Many athletes including those at the youth level already attend gyms and exercise centers where this kind of training is available. Find trainers who are certified practitioners and able to develop whatever qualities the athlete needs. Allow the practitioners to design both the proper foundational programs for youngsters and the more specific prescriptions for older athletes. This will be expensive and offering it on an individual basis will reduce youth sport participants to those who can afford it but it would be a quick way to offer pseudo sampling in the club.

Expand the 'sport block' model into more single sport clubs. I've seen this in Canada (Newfoundland) and in the old Soviet Union but I suspect it exists elsewhere. Clubs would rebrand themselves as sport clubs, not soccer clubs, swimming clubs, or whatever. The block model means that instead of offering year-round swimming, for example, the club offers a block of various sports and activities on a year round basis. Young athletes would participate all year but in different sports every few months. Transition to specialization would occur as athletes age but single sport specialization would not be an option at young ages.

There are measures that individual coaches and clubs could implement to help stem the loss of athleticism. Introducing various activities informally into practices and training sessions is one. Success would rely on concerned individuals seeing a need and acting on it. Right now following the specialization path at the youth level is just too easy.