The general public rarely allows sports science to interfere with their deeply held beliefs, even when the beliefs are more myth than reality. When I was coaching basketball in Ireland, young Irish players believed that greatness in basketball was not in their genes. They said that the Irish were not meant to be great athletes. Meanwhile, the Irish rugby team crushed their opponents in their preparation for the 2007 World Cup, where some pundits ranked Ireland as co-favorites with the All Blacks. While basketball and rugby are different sports that require different skills, each features athletes who are quick, swift, agile, strong, and coordinated. If Ireland produces world-class rugby talent with these athletic qualities, why do Irish basketball players believe that this development is beyond their gene pool?
Few see rugby and basketball in terms of athletic qualities, so few see the similarities. The same goes for sports in the United States. Many coaches and parents don’t see the athletic similarities between the sports: People see basketball as a sport for tall people who can shoot; rugby as an aggressive and physical sport; and volleyball as a non-contact sport with different ball skills than other sports. We miss athletic similarities, which impedes our overall athletic development.
Because we see sports in sport-specific terms, coaches are encouraging players to specialize at younger and younger ages. Some basketball coaches don’t like players who play volleyball as they don’t see any benefit and feel that they fall behind their teammates while “wasting time” playing volleyball. However, volleyball and basketball require lateral movement, hand-eye coordination, ball skills, and vertical jumping. There is a transfer between blocking a ball and contesting a shot, between moving laterally to drive off and moving laterally to avoid penetration by an offensive player.
As youth sports become more competitive, more young athletes are rushing to specialize. They heed their coach’s advice or follow their parents’ guidance as parents try to give their child an edge over the competition. Early specialization, when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty, leads to immediate improvements in sport-specific skills. Trainers and parents see immediate results and follow this path. If the most skilled 10-year-old plays basketball all year, maybe my son or daughter needs to spend 12 months of the year playing basketball. However, athletic development is a process, and sport-specific skill development is only part of it.
People encourage early specialization because of the immediate gains in sport-specific performance and ignore research that warns against early specialization. As Alan Launder writes in game practice:
“In 1985, a study by the Swedish Tennis Association suggested that early specialization is unnecessary for players to reach high levels of tennis performance. Among other things, this study found that players who were part of the ‘miracle’ of the 1980s Swedish tennis players, including the great Bjorn Borg, were very active in a variety of sports until they were 14 years old and didn’t start specializing until they were 16 years old.”
Before one can be good at any sport, one must first be an athlete, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development. However, as with Irish players, we view sports based on sport-specific abilities, not athletic qualities. We ignore examples like Chase Budinger and Wes Welker. Budinger, from the University of Arizona, was an elite volleyball player in high school. University of Arizona head coach Lute Olson believes Budinger has the athleticism to be a great defensive player because of her volleyball background. Welker played football throughout his high school career, and his former football coach, Mike Leach of Texas Tech University, credits football for Welker’s quickness and vision, which make him nearly unstoppable as a New York receiver. England Patriots.
In recent years, sports training facilities have proliferated. While these facilities fulfill parents’ major league dreams, much of their success lies in developing general athletic skills that athletes fail to develop naturally because they specialize and limit their athletic development. Instead of playing multiple sports, which train multiple skills, athletes specialize in one sport and use performance training to compensate for their limited athletic development.
Children used to develop these athletic skills by playing multiple sports and neighborhood games. Small children used to play tag. As speed expert Lee Taft says: “Tag may be the greatest game ever invented… There’s line speed, lateral speed, angular take offs, back flick, dodge skills, slice, change of direction, faking skills, breaking skills, reaching skills, body control skills, balance, flexibility, coordination, raising and lowering the center of mass, preparing opponents, strategies, teamwork… Basically, etiquette will force you to delve into your body’s bag of movement tricks has stored, or better yet, not stored, and forces you to use or learn them.”
Now, instead of playing tag in the street, the children go to the facilities where they do agility drills so they can change direction, fake, evade and cut when playing basketball, soccer or football. We impose professional training environments on children before puberty and ignore their different developmental needs. In the Swedish study, “what was most significant was that many players who had been superior to the eventual elite while in the 12-14 age group had left the sport, burnt out” (Launder).
Athletic development is a process and early specialization attempts to speed up the process. However, what is the goal? Is the goal to dominate at 10 years? Early specialization leads to early peaks. Players improve their sport-specific skills faster than those who participate in a wide range of activities. However, those who develop deeper and broader athletic skills have a better foundation when they eventually specialize. While those who specialized early plateaued, the others improved as they spent more time improving their sport-specific skill.
If you major in basketball at age 10, your overall athletic development is incomplete. While you are likely to improve your dribbling, shooting, and understanding of the game more quickly than your peers who play multiple sports, those who play multiple sports develop many other athletic skills. If others play soccer, they improve their vision, agility, footwork and more; if they play soccer, they develop different skills depending on the position, but they probably improve acceleration and power. When these athletes major in basketball at age 15, they have broader athletic abilities and have an advantage over the player who majored early and likely stalls in skill development.
Skills, from athletic to tactical to perceptive, transfer from one sport to another. Many coaches and parents insist that there is no relationship between the sports, giving more credence to early specialization. However, before one can excel in a sport, one must first be an athlete. The more developed a player’s general athletic abilities, the higher the player’s ceiling in their chosen sport. While the general public is slow to accept these ideas, sports science research argues that specialization before puberty is completely unnecessary and, in some cases, detrimental to an athlete’s long-term success. If the goal is to dominate other 10-year-olds, specialize early. However, if the goal is to raise healthy children and give them the opportunity to participate in athletics in high school and/or college, playing multiple sports offers a child greater development than early specialization.