To Specialize Early or Not to Specialize Early, That is the Question

Early sports specialization in young athletes is a hot topic right now.  I personally don’t think that it is good to start training kids for just one sport at an early age (early elementary years).  I think that when children have a lot of opportunities to take part in many different sports they become better well rounded athletes.  I ran across a very unique case of early specialization sports training.  My son Matt and I both have a love of running and like to learn about different sports.  This love of running and learning about different sports led us to a documentary about LoLo Jones.  For those of you who do not know who LoLo Jones is, she is an Olympic class runner who specializes in the 60 and 100 meter hurdles.  We enjoyed watching and learning about LoLo so much that we looked for other athletes to learn about.  We found a documentary on Todd Marinovich.  

Todd Marinovich is an extreme example of early sports specialization.  He has a very unique training background and was such a good quarterback that top Colleges were trying to recruit him when he was just a freshman in high school. Todd’s unique training is the focus of this post. Todd is one of those rare athletes whose entire life, literally centered on him becoming a football star.  Todd’s dad, Marv, was an NFL football player but his career was cut short because he overtrained and focused more than he should have on how much he weighed and how big his muscles were.  Because Marv’s NFL training experience did not pay off in the way that he was hoping it would, he became interested in how the Eastern bloc countries trained their athletes and started to study their training methods.  He used the techniques that he studied on his son Todd.  Todd was a baby when Marv started training him. 

As part of Todd’s early specialized training his father had him run.  Marv had Todd start running when he was still a toddler and by age 10 he was running 10 miles a day.  This unconventional training continued throughout his childhood and into his high school years.  Marv believed that this specialized training was necessary for Todd to become the successful football player that Marv wanted him to become.  Unfortunately, Todd got involved with drinking and drugs in high school and found that it helped him to relax and to deal with his social anxiety (he was always training so he did not get to socialize with other kids very often and so he was awkward in most social settings).  After high school he became injured and this led him to try other drugs.  This was the beginning of the end for Todd as he was eventually caught with some drugs and then arrested.

I’m sure that the intentions of most parents who have their child specialize early in 1 sport believe that their child can become an elite athlete if they start training when they are younger.  They probably assume that the more hours that their child practices a particular sport the better they will become and that is usually true.  But there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. s performance) to become an elite athlete [2].

Interestingly, this thinking did not come from research on athletes rather it came from research done on expert musicians.  But that is a topic for a future blog. It has been found that world-class athletes usually started competing at later ages, they competed in several other sports and were older when they were selected for special sports leagues compared to national level athletes.

In fact a recent survey of 148 elite and 95 near-elite Danish athletes showed that the elite athletes began intense training at a later age and spent fewer hours practicing its main sport up to the age of 15 years of age compared to the near-elite group.  By the age of 18 the 2 groups had accumulated a similar number of practice hours, but by 21 years, elites had accumulated more practice hours.  Involvement in other sports was not different between the groups and did not predict success.  It is important to add that there are some physiologic adaptations to aerobic training that happen in childhood, but there are greater adaptations during adolescence.

For most sports, early diversification is more likely to lead to success. Another survey of 376 female division 1 intercollegiate athletes found that the majority had their first organized sports experiences in other sports and that the majority had simultaneously participated in individual sports like swimming, track and field, diving, tennis, and golf.  Early diversification provides the young athlete with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promotes motivation.  It was also found that among high-level athletes the greater the number of activities that the athletes experienced and practiced in their developing years (ages 0-12), the less sports-specific practice was necessary to acquire expertise in their sport.  Thus, early diversification followed by specialization may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success. [2]

Some of the disadvantages of early specialization in a single-sport are; adverse psychological stress, burnout, injury, premature withdrawal from competitive sport, or dropping out of sports all together.  Yes it is important for elite athletes to specialize in their sport at some point, but it should not take place until late adolescence.  This will help to reduce the risk of injury, adverse psychological stress, and help the athlete to be as successful as possible in that particular sport.

Could Todd Marinovich have become the amazing athlete that he was if his father had not started training him when he was a baby?  We will never really know, but I think that he would have become a much better athlete because he would have experienced a “normal” childhood instead of the intense training that he was forced into, he obviously had the genetics to do so, a father with experience with a successful NFL opportunity, and maybe he would have been more focused on his training while in college instead of out doing drugs and socializing.

The Artisans – Sculpting a new you

1. Bompa, Tudor O., PhD, and Haff, G. Gregory, PhD. Periodization Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2009. Print.

2. Jayanthi N, MD, Pinkham C, BS,  Dugas L, PhD, Patrick B, MPH, and LaBella C, MD. “Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations.”   Sports Health 5.3 (year): 251-257. Print.

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