Emma Randall: The Problem with Specializing in Sport too Early

Why early specialization is happening

There is a lot of pressure for young athletes to be successful. Being successful on the playing field has education, career, and social implications. The better the athlete, the greater the scholarship amount to play a collegiate sport, the greater chance of continuing on a professional level. The better the result, the more recognition the athlete or the parent receive from those around them. The notion that sport is fun, which instills healthy active lifestyles and teaches life skills has been put on the back burner. The idea that multi-sport athletes produce whole athletes with better overall skills, is second to specialization. It is believed that single-sport sport specific skills produces the highest quality. Here's the danger with this mentality: it feeds the mindset that if specializing at 18 is good, then specializing at 13 is better. And if this is the case, then we should begin specializing our children in one sport at 8 to get an earlier start ahead of peers.

What are the consequences 

The overemphasis on being successful has been detrimental to sports. The need to be successful, as well as specialization, has lead to overtraining in which athletes are investing entirely too many hours for their age. The ten thousand hour rule (Malcom Gladwell's rule which insists investing 10,000 hours in anything makes you a master in that area) only reinforces this idea: “If I am going to be successful, I have to fully invest myself to the task with deliberate practice for at least ten years. The later I start my ten years, the later I achieve my goal.” The repeated motions of sport or even the amount of time in sport can lead to severe or career ending injuries at a younger age. The amount of pressure in the form of expectations of success from self, parents, coaches, and even social media can lead to anxiety, fear of failure, and even burnout. When we over identify in one role in life, such as the role of an wrestler, we limit our sources of joy, confidence, and support. If were to loose our identity as a wrestler because of injury, not making the team, or losing a state title, we start to wonder am I really a wrestler? If I am not, then who am I? Where do I fit into this world? What talents or skills do I have that I can be confident in? Who can I turn to for support? This is dangerous for anyone, let alone a young athlete when their mental health is at stake.

How to combat the problem

It starts with education to the stakeholders involved. Parents rarely choose to do something they know will hurt their children. Coaches rarely make choices that would set their athlete back. Providing coaches and parents with the pros and cons of specialization allows them to make an educated choice on how to act, instead of following today's social norms of youth sport. Believing early specialization means more success is a dangerous narrative.  As a parent, encourage your athlete to be diverse. Just because she wants participate in one sport, doesn’t mean you can’t encourage her to build hobbies and social activities around other positive areas of her life. If your athlete pushes back, make it a family event which provides a well needed break from sport. As a coach, encourage your athletes to try other sports and hobbies and provide down time if it’s a year round program. Value the whole person and not only the athlete's success on the mat or playing field. Shake up practices with warm-ups that include different sports and skills that are unusual for your sport. Utilize cross-over training sessions with other teams in which your team jumps into volleyball or basketball while the next week they jump to learn your sport's skills. If you see an athlete continually exhausted or injured, encourage them to take a mental and physical break. It's easy to believe that by allowing a week or two away from sport, they will easily walk away. In reality, the athlete will come back more motivated and healthy to do a sport they love.

Emma Randall is the head girls development director for Beat the Streets NY and was a member of Team USA’s coaching staff since 2012. She was a coach for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and has been coach of numerous world teams at all age levels.

Emma earned her B.A. and M.S. in Sports Psychology from Lock Haven University where she competed for the team and wrestled on the senior circuit. In 2016, Randall earned her USA Wrestling Gold level coaching certification. She is one of 68 coaches to hold that certification and the only woman. Through her own business, Evolve Leadership and Performance Training, she is dedicated to the growth and development of females and coaches in sports.