Would you rather win your Little League Championship or play Major League Baseball? It is very difficult to do both. Since 1947, only 23 players who played in the Little League World Series have also played in the MLB. Would you rather win the battle or win the war?
Athletes and parents who participate in youth sports have likely encountered the term “early specialization”. Early specialization involves focusing on just one sport before an athlete has reached full physical maturity and typically includes multiple competitive seasons for many months throughout the year with limited rest. With the exception of a select few sports (women’s gymnastics, for example), early specialization increases the risk of injury and dropout rate and decreases an athlete’s overall performance and enjoyment.
Despite these well-documented negative consequences, there is still confusion about whether young athletes should specialize early. Among many other factors, the misinterpretation of research on skill development (looking at you, 10,000 Hour Rule) and the survivorship bias of athletes who specialized early but still reached the professional ranks (“but Tiger Woods did it…”) has led to the belief that early specialization is the best way to develop skills and achieve greatness in a particular sport or activity.
Ultimately, however, the potential short-term benefits of specializing early are not worth the long-term physical and mental damages.
As maligned as the term early specialization has become, it is only by combining “early” training programs that are too “specialized” that young athletes can experience harmful consequences. For the majority of sports, early specialization is simply a case of doing the right thing but at the wrong time. Appropriate “early” training habits and “specializing” once an athlete is ready are both important components of optimal long-term athletic development.
Early exposure to training is important for developing the fundamental athletic skills (also known as physical literacy) that provide the foundation for more advanced sport skills in the future. Exposing youth athletes to a wide variety of sports and activities is known as early diversification.
Specialization is required at the highest levels of sports. This is the reason why there are very few athletes who play multiple collegiate or professional sports. There is a need to specialize once athletes reach such a high level of competition.
The optimal long-term athletic development program can help both young athletes looking for “early” development of physical literacy and seasoned high school competitors who are ready to “specialize” in one sport to prepare for higher level competition. At ADAPT, we understand this distinction, and it is part of the way we are building better athletes.
Our next post will further explore the concept of early diversification.
 O’Sullivan, John. Changing the Game Project. New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2014.