By Brian McCormick, written on October 27, 2008
The general public rarely allows sports science to interfere with its deeply held beliefs, even when the beliefs are more myth than reality. When I coached basketball in Ireland, the young Irish players believed that basketball greatness was not in their genes. They said that Irishmen were not meant to be great athletes. Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Team crushed its opponents in its preparation for the 2007 World Cup, where some experts pegged Ireland as a co-favorite with the All Blacks. While basketball and rugby are different sports requiring different skills, each features athletes who are fast, quick, agile, strong and coordinated. If Ireland produces world class rugby talent with these athletic qualities, why do Irish basketball players believe this development is beyond their gene pool?
Few view rugby and basketball in terms of athletic qualities, so few see the similarities. The same is true with sports in the United States. Many coaches and parents fail to see the athletic similarities between sports: People view basketball as a sport for tall people who can shoot; rugby as an aggressive, physical sport; and volleyball as a non-contact sport with different ball skills than other sports. We miss the athletic similarities, which impedes our overall athletic development.
Because we view sports in sport-specific terms, coaches encourage players to specialize at earlier and earlier ages. Some basketball coaches dislike players who play volleyball, as they see no benefit and feel 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 for a dig and moving laterally to prevent an offensive player's penetration.
As youth sports grow more competitive, more young athletes rush to specialize. They heed their coach's advice or follow their parents' guidance, as parents try to give their child an advantage over the competition. Early specialization - when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty - leads to immediate sport-specific skill improvements. Coaches and parents see immediate results and follow this path. If the most skilled 10-year-old plays basketball year-round, maybe my son or daughter needs to devote 12 months a year to basketball. However, athletic development is a process, and sport-specific skill development is only one piece.
People encourage early specialization because of the immediate sport-specific performance gains. However before one can be great at any sport, he must be an athlete first, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development. However, as with the Irish players, we view sports based on sport-specific skills, not athletic qualities.
In recent years, athletic training facilities have proliferated. While these facilities play to parent's big league dreams, much of their success is developing general athletic skills which athletes fail to develop naturally because they specialize and narrow their athletic development. Rather than play multiple sports, which train multiple skills, athletes specialize in one sport and use performance training to compensate for their narrow athletic development.
Kids used to develop these athletic skills by playing multiple sports and neighborhood games, like tag, which develops agility, balance, coordination, evading skills, body control and more.
Now, rather than play tag in their neighborhood, kids go to facilities where they do agility drills so they can change directions, fake, evade and cut when they play basketball, soccer or football. We impose professional training environments on kids before puberty and ignore their differing developmental needs.
Athletic development is a process and early specialization attempts to speed the process. However, what is the goal? Is the goal to dominate as a 10-year-old? Early specialization leads to early peaks. Players improve their sport-specific skills more rapidly 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 ultimately specialize. While those who specialized early hit a plateau, the others improve as they dedicate more time to enhancing their sport-specific skill.
If one specializes in basketball at 10-years-old, his general athletic development is incomplete. While he likely improves his dribbling, shooting and understanding of the game more rapidly than his peers who play multiple sports, those who play multiple sports develop many other athletic skills. If the others play soccer, they improve their vision, agility, footwork and more; if they play football, they develop different skills depending on position, but likely improve acceleration and power. When these athletes specialize in basketball at 15-years-old, they have broader athletic skills and have an advantage against the player who specialized early and likely hits a plateau in his skill development.
Skills - from athletic to tactical to perceptual - transfer from sport to sport. Many coaches and parents insist there is no relation between sports, which gives more credence to early specialization. However, before one excels at a sport, he or she must be an athlete first. The more developed a player's general athletic skills, the higher the player's ceiling in his or her chosen sport. While the general public is slow to accept these ideas, sports science research contends that specialization before puberty is wholly unnecessary and in some cases is 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 nurture healthy children and give them an opportunity to participate in high school and/or college athletics, playing multiple sports offers a child more developmentally than does early specialization.