As a recent Aspen Institute research paper notes, just about every signal parents and youth athletes receive today from the prevailing youth sports culture supports the idea that high doses of one sport at an early age is the only pathway to athletic stardom.
Well, not every signal.
We at MomsTEAM, for one, have been fighting that culture, and trying for the past 14 years to debunk the many myths that have grown up around the supposed need for kids to specialize in a single sport before adolescence.
In my 2006 book, "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports," I devoted eight pages to cataloguing the reasons why early specialization (e.g. a year-round training program in one sport and the elimination of other activities) was a bad idea, which later formed the basis for a series of articles  for MomsTEAM adapted from the book.
I wrote then that "the trend towards early specialization (to be distinguished from starting early, which, for some sports, such as ice hockey, is important), and an increasingly professionalized approach to youth sports, appears to be driven more by folklore, myths and half-truths, a herd mentality, the ever-burgeoning youth sports industry, and by adults more intent on winning than acting in the best long-term interests of children, than actual, cold, hard evidence."
Unfortunately, it appears that the trend towards early specialization, if anything, is accelerating.
To separate fact from fiction, and, in the hopes that parents will make decisions about the sports their children play based on facts, not fiction, here are answers to three of the most frequently asked questions about early sport specialization:
Question: What are the benefits and drawbacks of early specialization?
Answer: The research supports a few specific benefits and domains in which early specialization is advantageous:
But for the vast majority of athletes, the drawbacks of early specialization are numerous. The majority of research suggests that early specialization can have significant negative consequences for the development of an athlete over time.
Studies have shown that early specialization:
Question: What is the 10 year/10,000 hour rule and is it required to achieve elite-level success in sports?
Answer: About twenty years ago, Swedish researcher Anders Ericsson and many of his contemporaries began advancing the idea that 10 years and 10,000 hours of focused and specific practice are often necessary for one to reach expert status in a particular field. According to this model, participants can only reach their potential and succeed if they are exposed to this form of activity at an early age and maintain high volume of practice over time.
The 10,000 hour notion, says the recent Aspen Institute research brief, is one that "inevitably promotes early specialization." and is a rule often cited by coaches, entrepreneurs, private sports facility owners, in anecdotal cases of child prodigies who went on to find success, by the college sports industry, and by best selling authors such as Malcom Gladwell, who introduced the '10,000 hour rule' of 'deliberate practice' to a mass audience." (although, notes the brief, Ericsson "never called it a 'rule,'" and Gladwell himself later backed off his statement, saying that his analysis in Outliers was confined to those engaged in "cognitively demanding fields" and "that it is a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand hour idea applies to every domain.")
While studies provide general support for the role of practice in athletic development and a strong positive relationship between the amount of practice time accumulated and elite sports performance, research also suggests that the cumulative amount of training necessary to achieve elite-level status may be far less than the 10,000 hours some have proposed.
Unfortunately, as the Aspen Institute research brief notes, the popular understanding - on the Internet and among sports parents - of the 10,000 hour rule "often dismisses the role of numerous factors that interact to shape skill acquisition such as genetic ability, maturation, coaching, parental support, and even general skills like physical fitness, and rather [attributes] sports expertise to only one element - engagement in deliberate practice.
Question: What are the benefits and drawbacks of playing multiple sports (early sampling)?
Answer: Research suggests that sampling and playing multiple sports at an early age, instead of specializing, has numerous benefits, including long-term talent development.
Specifically, an early sampling pathway has been associated with:
As the Aspen Institute research brief notes, "a fair amount of research has supported [the idea] that [skill] transfer may be the most compelling argument that could be made for athletes to engage in sport sampling, especially at a young age." It cites in support a 2002 study by conducted for the US Olympic Committee showing that a majority of Olympians from the 80's and 90's cited playing multiple sports as young athletes and teenagers, and that having access to multiple sports programs as kids was very beneficial to their development and training. Similarly, a 2013 study surveying college athletes reported that only 30% of those surveyed specialized in just one sport prior to the age of 12, while 88% played more than one sport as a child, consistent with a 2010 study of female Division 1 college athletes which found that 83% played more than one competitive sport as a youth.
Perhaps as important to the development of elite athletes was quality coaching at a young age, with excellent coaches ranked by US Olympians from 1984 to 1998 as the third-most important factor that contributed to their success as an Olympic athlete, just below dedication and persistence and support of family and friends, and a 2010 Australian study reporting that 67% of 673 elite athletes in that country (including 51 Olympians) citing the "critical and highly influential" role their coaches played in their talent development as young athletes at the junior and local club level, especially their ability to motivate and encourage.
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