February 18, 2021

Early Specialization and Diversification in Youth Sports

Youth sport is fundamentally bound by ethical issues that are multiplied as parents become increasingly involved in the athletic lives of their kids. The cost of youth sports is continuing to rise and is compounded by a significant number of hidden costs. This includes gas money, hotel charges, and restaurant fees that parents are supposed to front as their children compete at tournaments. Additionally, the time away from work is an opportunity cost that must be weighed by parents as they push their kids through the youth sports system. Thus, parents naturally expect a return on their investment in the form of a successful athletic career by their children. What is deemed a successful athletic career could mean different things depending on the parent, but college scholarships or professional contracts are common goals for parents who have given a lot of time and money in support of their children’s athletic careers (Malina, 2010). For children who possess an affinity for a sport at a certain age, parents may push their kids to focus on that one sport in what is called early specialization (Malina, 2010). In theory, systematic training from an early age should yield the best results as the athlete will be ahead of their peers. However, there is much debate on whether or not early specialization is the best path for athletic success as it also increases the likelihood of burnout (Malina, 2010).

The most famous case of early specialization is Tiger Woods. Woods was introduced to golf at a very young age, practiced consistently and deliberately, and with the guidance of a dominating parent, he arguably became the greatest golfer of all-time (Epstein & Roberts, 2019). As the inputs by parents increase, the expected outputs of their children also increase, but of course not every child will become Tiger Woods through early specialization. Failing to meet expectations is one of the main causes of burnout along with negative performance evaluations and overtraining (Malina, 2010).

Tiger Woods (left) and Roger Federer (right) playing their respective sports as young children. Woods exclusively trained his golf skills while Federer took up other sports such as soccer. (via. Sports Illustrated)
Tiger Woods (left) and Roger Federer (right) playing their respective sports as young children. Woods exclusively trained his golf skills while Federer took up other sports such as soccer. (via. Sports Illustrated)

On overtraining, the longer athletes participate in sports, the more likely they are to have an injury, especially if they do not have adequate recovery time (Malina, 2010). According to David Epstein on the EconTalk podcast, there is a better alternative to early specialization (Epstein & Roberts, 2019). Epstein explains that children who are exposed to multiple sports and choose to specialize later in their athletic careers tend to be better off than those who specialize early (Epstein & Roberts, 2019). The athlete that Epstein cited to back up this claim was Roger Federer, whose tennis career was made better in the long run by playing many different sports as a kid (Epstein & Roberts, 2019). Parents do not like this method because their children run the risk of not being above average whereas, through early specialization, children can be programmed to be good at a specific sport (Epstein & Roberts, 2019). However, the chance of burnout and the ethical issues that come with it are undoubtedly increased through early specialization. Parents must understand that the best option for themselves and their kids is not to overmanage but to allow the motivations of the children to influence the athletic career decisions.

While the opposite of early specialization, early diversification, does have its merits, there is some evidence to support the former. The early specialization argument is posited around the belief that if a person does not start training at a young enough age, they will never be able to catch those who started training before them. A theory put forth by Herbert Simon and William Chase suggests that early training has benefits that supersede those afforded by genetics (Baker, 2003). Genetics may provide some individuals with advantages over others, but there is no evidence to suggest that there is a gene that enhances cognitive processing ability in a specific domain (i.e. boxing-specific information), which is one of the main metrics used for determining expertise (Baker, 2003). This type of learned experience can only be done through training, and Simon and Chase claim that it takes a minimum of 10 years of deliberate practice to become an expert at a single practice (Baker, 2003). For parents looking to benefit from their child’s athletic capabilities, this 10-year window forces them to have them trained at a very young age. In the United States, this is further exemplified by the onset of college recruiting during an athlete’s junior year of high school - the end of the 10-year window.

Looking forward, the rising value of sports properties and player salaries will likely lead to more occurrences of early specialization. Parents will continue to believe that if they push their kids hard enough that they can break through and secure substantial returns on their investment. Early specialization has the potential to benefit an athlete, like in the example of Tiger Woods, but the decision to dedicate one’s life to practice from such a young age should include a dialogue between both the parents and the child. In the absence of this, ethical consequences of injuries, powerlessness, chronic stress, and underdeveloped social skills may begin to take hold (Malina, 2010). These effects can be mitigated by following a path of athletic diversification rather than early specialization, which is why David Epstein argued against early specialization. Preventing early specialization may not be entirely possible, but one strategy would be to reduce the overinflated costs of youth sports so that parents no longer feel as though they are assuming risk by supporting their child’s athletic aspirations. Not only would this decrease the number of children suffering from the effects of burnout, but it also would enable willful specialization in sports by children who previously could not do so due to financial constraints. There is a place in the youth sports complex for both early specialization and diversification but both must be approached in a way that considers the goals and motivations of all parties involved.

Sources

  1. Baker, J. (2003) Early Specialization in Youth Sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies. DOI: 10.1080/13598130304091
  2. Epstein, D. (Guest), Roberts, R. (Host). (2019). David Epstein on Mastery, Specialization, and Range. Retrieved from: https://www.econtalk.org/david-epstein-on-mastery-specialization-and-range/
  3. Malina, R. (2010). Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(6), 364-371. DOI:10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181fe3166

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