In recent years there has been a growing popularity in children specializing in one year-round sport, as opposed to participating in many different sports at the youth level.  This can be attributed to the increasing competitiveness for athletes to perform at higher levels and make it to the professional level.  Professional athletics is now portrayed as the pinnacle of society because the high amount of revenue it generates.  Many parents are willing to go to drastic measures to do what they think is best for their children in terms of athletic skill development, even if the child does not enjoy the sport.  This method of a vigorous year-round training program at the youth level was derived from other activities such as playing an instrument.  This idea is centered around the belief that 10,000 hours of organized, structured practice are necessary to fully develop the skills necessary to function at a high level (O’Sullivan, 2014).  The first sports to have increased rates of athletes specializing at the youth level were mostly acrobatic and artistic sports such as gymnastics, diving, and figure skating.  These had increased early specialization because it is necessary to develop complex sport specific movements prior to onset of the adolescent growth spurt (Balyi, Way, and Higgs, 2013).  In recent times, all sports seem to be following this trend of specializing at the youth level in hopes of maximizing athletic performance.

There have been multiple cases where researchers have looked at the long term detrimental effects of early sport specialization.  Evidence based recommendations have been developed by specialists who performed a literary review of the topic.  Through their investigation of scholarly article between 1990 and 2011, tThree Boys Holding Sports Ballshey came up with the following list of potential risks from early specialization:

  • Higher rates of injury
  • Increased psychological stress
  • Quitting sports at a young age

In addition to these risks, the research showed that there is no evidence proving that intense training and sport specialization before puberty are necessary for the athlete to achieve an elite status (Jayanthi, et al., 2013).  A separate article by John O’Sullivan points out additional potential problems athletes in this category may run in to, including burnout due to stress, adult physical inactivity, and even increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders such as PFP, Osgood Schlatter, and ACL tears.  Encouraging children to specialize in a single sport is most optimal between age 13 and 16 if this is the direction the child wishes to go.  Other factors that should be considered when deciding to pursue one sport at the higher level include physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills (Balyi, Way, and Higgs, 2013).  All of these factors are vital to development as a higher level athlete, as well as a human being.

One of the most interesting stories, in my opinion, of early sport specialization is the development of Todd Marinovich’s career.  Marinovich was introduced to athletic training techniques by his father, Marv, before he could even walk.  Marv Marinovich played football for USC and then for the Oakland Raiders.  After his career was cut short due to injury, Marv became one of the first Strength and Conditioning coaches in the NFL.  Todd Marinovich’s parents wanted to provide him with the perfect environment to give him the best chance to succeed.  Once Todd was getting recognized for his success at the high school level, Sports Illustrated wrote an article titled “Bred To Be A Superstar,” about his experimental and cautious upbringing transforming him into the perfect quarterback.  Sports Illustrated describes Todd’s childhood with the following quote:

He has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products. He teethed on frozen kidney and liver. When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son’s physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activities grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd’s crib from day one. “Not a real NFL ball,” says Marv. “That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball.”

Among all of Todd’s nationwide fame in high school and the pressure of being labeled as “Robo QB” or the “perfect quarteback,” he had an insurmountable feeling of stress and social anxiety.  His Junior of high school year, after being on the national spotlight for over two years, Todd began turning to drugs to relieve his anxiety.  This strategy was so widely known, opposing fans began calling him “Marijuana-vich.”  He was very successful closing out his high school career with outstanding numbers.  Once Todd was at USC, he got off to a slow start on the field, and was having drug problems right off the bat.  As the season progressed, he was performing well again and ended up becoming the first All-Pac-10 Freshman Quarterback in conference history (Moran, 1990).  Marinovich’s sophomore year was not as successful.  He skipped classes, had many disputes with his coach, and ended up getting arrested for cocaine possession.

After his unfortunate sophomore year, Todd declared for the NFL draft.  He was drafted late in the first round, but then struggled in the league for three years before joining the Canadian Football League.  Marinovich admits that his years spent in the CFL were solely to pay for drugs.  He played Arena Football briefly before resorting to multiple part time jobs while still struggling with drug addiction.  He has been arrested more than a dozen times (Whiting, 2013). Although Todd Marinovich is a very extreme case of forcing a child to specialize in a sport early on, it clearly shows how athletes can miss out on well-rounded development in the childhood year, eventually leading to burnout.  It is important to get the youth involved in a variety of activities so they can discover what they want for themselves.  In order for healthy, optimal growth, there has to be an emphasis on enjoyment, rather than performance at the youth level.

References

Balyi, I., Way, R., Higgs, C. (2013) Long-Term Athlete Development: Late Specialization is Recommended for Most Sports. Human Kinetics, Retrieved from: http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/late-specialization-is-recommended-for-most-sports

Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., LaBella, C. (2013, May) Sports Specializations in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations, Sports Health; 5(3): 251-257, doi: 10.1177/1941738112464626

Moran, M. (1990, August 24) The Making of a Quarterback; U.S.C.’s Marinovich Was Raised According to a Game Plan, New York Times, Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/24/sports/football-making-quarterback-usc-s-marinovich-was-raised-according-game-plan.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

O’Sullivan, J. (2014) Is it Wise to Specialize? Retrieved from:http://changingthegameproject.com/is-it-wise-to-specialize/

Whiting, D. (2013, August 21) ‘Robo quarterback’ Todd Marinovich turns Dad, The Orange County Register, Retrieved from http://www.ocregister.com/articles/todd-373739-marv-football.html

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