Author David Epstein’s 5 Reasons Against Sport Specialization

declan sand2

Can too much of a good thing be downright bad? In our sports obsessed culture it’s not  uncommon for pre-teens to be dedicating some 20 hours a week to one sport which has more and more experts advocating  less is more. Author David Epstein recently updated his best selling book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance  to include a chapter on specialization. He shares with us, five reasons your kids NEED to sport-diversify.

1)THEIR MENTAL HEALTH

Turns out that many kids who are specialized early are simply early biological maturers. (Check out this pic of two 13-year-old rugby captains.) 13 year old rugby boys

What looks like extreme talent is actually just puberty, and those early sprouters tend to end up specialized by eager coaches before they’ve had a chance to learn what sport actually suits them, both physiologically and psychologically. It’s a great strategy to specialize those kids if you’re aiming to have the best 10-year-old, and a terrible plan if you want the best 20-year-old. A famous Swedish study of sub-elite and elite tennis players – five of whom went on to be ranked top fifteen in the world as adults – found that the eventual sub-elites dropped all sports other than tennis by age eleven, whereas the eventual elites continued playing multiple sports until fourteen. Only at fifteen did the future elites begin to practice more than the future sub-elites. Of the childhoods of the future elites, the researchers write: “Tennis was just one among other sports. Their participation in tennis proceeded within the frame of an unsophisticated and harmonious club environment without greater demands for success.” Most of the future sub-elites matured early but began to experience diminished success when their peers caught up. They typically ended up quitting the sport forever while still in their teens.

2) LEARN LIKE A BABY (i.e., Play)

ADDIE PIPER PIC

When babies learn language, they’re immersed; they try and struggle and learn a little and make mistakes without compunction, and then later in life they learn systematic grammar. When young athletes are given highly technical coaching early in development, it’s like teaching the grammar before the immersion has embedded the most important skills in the parts of the brain where they can be executed smoothly and “without thinking.” It’s backward, and can ultimately inhibit performance. Play should come first, and technical training only later. A brand new study of German soccer players is a great example. The best players in the study made the national team, which won the World Cup last year, and the research speaks for itself: “National Team [players] differed from amateurs in more non-organized leisure football in childhood, more engagement in other sports in adolescence, later specialization, and in more organized football only at age 22+ years.”

3) IT WORKS FOR SCHOLARSHIP ATHLETES

Urban Meyer sport diversity chart

And a recent analysis of athletes at UCLA found that varsity competitors specialized on average at age 15.4, compared to 14.2 for undergrads who played in high school but didn’t make the collegiate level.

4) THEIR SKILL DEVELOPMENT

Ever since a two-year-old Tiger Woods demonstrated his silky swing beside Bob Hope on national television, increasing sport specialization has been de rigueur. It’s an early advantage, right? Wrong. In fact, most athletes who go on to become elite actually spend less time in serious practice in their eventual sport than do athletes who plateau at lower levels.

Late specialization screen shot

Rather than the Tiger model, what I call the “Roger model” is actually the typical star’s route.

Roger Federer’s parents were, as L. Jon Wertheim put it in Strokes of Genius, “pully,” not pushy. They encouraged him to play soccer, badminton, and basketball before focusing on tennis. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash played a variety of sports and didn’t even own a basketball until age 13. Clearly, his skill development wasn’t impaired.

A burgeoning body of research suggests that kids who have a “sampling period” where they play multiple attacking sports, like basketball, soccer, hockey, or volleyball, transfer anticipatory skills – the ability to read body movements and game play in order to react quickly – to whichever sport they ultimately decide to pursue seriously. Like children who grow up bilingual and subsequently learn other languages more easily, kids who learn multiple sports early seem to pick up any future sport more rapidly. Consider the message in the counterintuitive title of a study on the developmental paths of Danish elite and lower level athletes: “Late Specialization: The Key to Success.”

5) THEIR PHYSICAL HEALTH

In a three-year Loyola University study, researchers found that a third of youth athletes had quit multiple sports to focus on one for at least eight months a year. Those specialized athletes had a 36 percent increased risk of suffering a serious overuse injury during the study. We’re talking the kind of problems more befitting their grandparents, and that could limit their athletic development: stress fractures in their backs; cracks in joint cartilage; damage to elbow ligaments. Ever wonder why Major League Baseball pitchers are getting Tommy John surgery in record numbers – 30% have now had it – even though they pitch less than ever? Too much pitching when they’re younger causes micro-tears in the developing elbow ligament, setting it up for trouble. Struan Coleman, head physician for the New York Mets, suggests 80 pitches followed by four rest days is a reasonable benchmark for your young flamethrower. And that counts out-of-competition throws when that travel-team coach shows up with his radar gun. None of this means kids should spend less time in sports overall, just that there should be diversification. The Loyola researchers found that sport diversification had a protective effect. (Full disclosure: I have a teenaged cousin who throws 90mph and just had Tommy John. I warned him at Thanksgiving … shows how much clout I have!)

David Epstein is author of the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. He is an investigative reporter at ProPublica, former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and his TED talk on athletic performance was one of the most viewed of 2014. He was a scientist in training before coming to journalism, and was twice All-East in NCAA Division-I track and field. 

epstein headshot Sports Gene paperback cover

5 Comments

  1. Now this is a series I think I’ll really get behind. I suspect at some point Epstein may cite the infamous 10,000 hour rule and will hopefully point out that it doesn’t have to be 10,000 hours doing something tightly specific. People who cite the “rule” often fail to recognize that crossover hours count. You might be a soccer player, but there are tons of benefits from playing basketball – as an example.

    Reply
    • Please see our post on the “Myth of practice” filed under LEARN by one of my favorite educators, Michael McArdle. It is all about the 10,000 hour rule.

      Reply

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