Early Specialization

Early specialization in youth sports is hot topic in the sports medicine field.

Today it is common for children and young teens to become highly involved in a particular sport and participate in this sport all year long for a number of years. The children participate on multiple teams for the same sport, practicing and competing several times every week. They work with special coaches and focus much of their time participating in their sport. The controversy is over whether this produces a more superior athlete in young adulthood. The motivation is often to get a scholarship or even to become a professional athlete. Parents spend tens of thousands of dollars to assist their child in the attempt to attain this goal. There is much evidence available on the effects of this early specialization and on the benefits of early and varied exercise. Much of what I will write about has been publicized by Dr. Greg Rose. Dr. Rose is a Doctor of Chiropractic, a world renowned golf trainer, and a published movement specialist.

It is a fact that movement causes brain development. Once a movement pattern is set, it is extremely difficult to change that pattern. How do we get around this? We train proper movement, then it becomes ingrained in the brain and part of the athletes natural movement. An example of this is a young child repetetively shooting and reaching for the basketball hoop, when they are too young to have the strength or ability to hold the ball and shoot with proper form. What will occur is reinforcement of the improper form with encouragement of the shooting from the coaches, peers, parents. The pattern is set and it will be very hard to teach the proper form when the body is ready developmentally. Youth baseball pitching is another example. Perhaps this is where the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” comes from. You cannot change an existing pattern; you have to create a new pattern with repetition of a new movement. The best way to avoid poor athletic form is to start with good form. Attention to sport and athletic fundamentals is vital. To optimize sport-specific skill, training has to appropriately match body development and maturity.

Children need to be active and explore their environment. Movement stimulates brain development. The pathways used frequently are reinforced and strengthened, those not used are lost. Children who spend most of their time sitting at the computer or playing video games are losing these essential patterns and replacing them with poor movement due to their sedentary habits. Gross movement skills are most important at a young age. Children should be able to appropriately and easily skip, hop, run, jump, throw and kick. Variety in exercise will develop all of these fundamental movement patterns. The child will develop into a better athlete by participating in multiple sports.

There has been much documented research on the detrimental effects of specializing in one sport before the late teenage years. The most detrimental to optimal growth and development is the increased risk of overuse injuries. These injuries are damaging to soft-tissue, joint stability and strength and often result in surgeries performed on an immature skeleton. Almost as damaging is the burn-out factor which may occur if children are consistently participating in the same activity over a number of years. The youngster gets bored and may become turned off to the sport all together.

In summation, encourage you child and future sports star to be active early and often. Try every sport if the opportunity presents itself. The benefits will last a lifetime.