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Specialization is For Older Kids

By Dr. Richard Ginsburg, Ph. D, 10/04/12, 1:30PM EDT


How much is too much?

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Main article by Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., Co-Director, MGH Sports Psychology Program and Paces Institute

Practice makes perfect. Much of our culture has been driven by this proverb for centuries. And to no surprise, this message courses strongly through the veins of youth sports...


Specialization and Long Term Athlete Development

...and in the game of lacrosse [this article is spotlighting lacrosse, but many of the arguments apply to hockey and other sports]. If our children practice the sport of lacrosse every day, they will likely improve their skills and become better players. Such a belief seems entirely logical. But, where do we draw the line? When does more practice make less sense? When does specializing exclusively in one sport from an early age become a risky investment? From another perspective, why shouldn't we simply commit our children to playing lacrosse exclusively on a year-round basis at a very early age so they can become experts by the time they need a college scholarship or at least a competitive advantage in the college admissions' process?

Research studies that support the early sport specialization argument exist, even though they are in small numbers. The most well-known study was conducted by Ericsson and colleagues (1993) who reported that musicians training up to 10,000 hours over the course of their careers, using deliberate practice (practice focused solely on improvement and not enjoyment), were more likely to become expert musicians than those who trained significantly less. Since the publication of this study and its popularity enhanced by Malcolm Gladwell's mention of it in Outliers, we have witnessed a significant surge in sport specialization nationally. Lacrosse, once a sport that was thought to be complementary to other field sports, including hockey, football, soccer, field hockey and basketball, is increasingly affected by the specialization bug. Fall tournaments, winter indoor leagues, summer camps and tournaments, are all now common parts of a lacrosse playing experience.

It comes down to this. A growing number of ten- and eleven-year-olds are being told that they must make a choice about their athletic careers. They are told, "It's either soccer or lacrosse. It's either field hockey or lacrosse. … You can't play both if you want to play at a higher level." How does a young child choose at this age? How are they able to project into the future and anticipate which sport is going to be a better fit for them both from a performance and enjoyment perspective? Why should they have to choose between friend groups at this age? And what metrics do we have as parents to help guide them?

I personally don't think these forced choices are driven by an overall concern for the well-being and health of youth. Rather, these decisions are the result of the manipulation of our (parental) fears for the profit of the few. We fear that if we say no to the elite travel team or the summer tournament that conflicts with family plans, we are closing the door on a potential gateway to lacrosse achievement and excellence. Adding to this, we worry if they don't play, they may lose touch with valued friends and ultimately feel bad about themselves not being a part of the elite team.

And what is the promise of participation on a travel team or in a critical summer or fall tournament? "If you pay the admission ($ x,000 for a season; $y,00 for a tournament ), you might increase your chances for admissions to a higher caliber college … maybe." Yet, does it really make sense for families to rearrange their weekend plans so their ten- and eleven-year-olds can play in tournaments (up to 4 games in back-to-back days) in 100 degree weather on turf? Do youth sport athletes really need practice 5 days a week, turning family dinners into a rare exception? Is this really what we think is best for our youth?

I find this trend quite concerning on a number of levels. The chances any of our children are able to use lacrosse to get into college are quite low. Approximately 5% of high school senior athletes go on to play any level of collegiate sports. Significantly less play at the Division I level and full scholarships are very rare. While there are currently no data on the sport of lacrosse and college acceptance rates, the growing popularity of the sport make college play an even more remote possibility. And as we intuitively know, exclusive play in one sport, or, putting all your eggs in one basket, has its significant risks. Many researchers and experts have noted that specialization before puberty can be a risk for overuse injury, burnout and stress. Yes, we can site prodigies like Tiger Woods as examples of the value of early specialization, but there are far more stories of burnout and injury, and Tiger's story hasn't had such a good chapter lately with evidence of overuse injury and poor character.

And does early specialization really work? It's debatable. Many Olympic development programs have moved away from early specialization and are looking to diversify the athletic experiences of their youth. Some researchers speak of the value of multiple sports training to avoid over-use injury. Multiple-sport training helps strengthen the athletic range and capacities of our youth, so that when they eventually choose their desired sport, they are versatile, skilled and resilient. We have so much more to study about training and peak performance before we commit our youth to extreme, specialized training in one sport. Critical variables such as the number of hours of playing and training, rest, creative play, implicit vs. explicit motivation, and implementation of competition are all areas that need much further study. In a study we conducted at MGH in Boston on minor league baseball players, the average age of specialization among these top-level athletes was approximately 16 years old. Many played football and basketball through their high school careers.

I do believe that more and more collegiate-bound lacrosse players are choosing to specialize in lacrosse at younger ages, even though a lot of college coaches will say that they prefer multiple-sport athletes. And, while many college coaches may indicate that the skill level of their recruits is higher among specialized athletes, I am not at all convinced that the college coaches are actually getting a better athletic result. Do their specialized recruits have the physical and mental fortitude to weather the challenges of long seasons? How do they deal with adversity, of playing in lesser roles? Do they stick with the program for four years, and how do they compare with the multiple sport recruits? I would like to see a study of this.

Based on these arguments, one might choose to side with the multiple-sport path. But the college game seems to be driving it the other direction. More and more, college coaches are recruiting a fair number of their players based on travel team performance and tournament play. As stated above, these travel teams and tournaments often require substantial fees and huge time commitments. Why would a travel team coach want to suggest that his or her players need to play other sports and take more time off from lacrosse? That would reduce their income. Why would college coaches want the hundreds of youth sport athletes to attend multi-sport camps instead of their highly profitable summer camp programs? It hurts their capacity to recruit and it reduces their profit as well. I know there are great college coaches at all levels that really care about the personal and physical development of their players, but the strength of the specialization current is difficult to overcome, particularly when it runs counter to the profit and convenience of those who have the greatest influence.

So, is there ever a time when specialization makes sense? As parents, we might have children who love lacrosse so much that it's what they want to do all the time. All their best friends play, the exercise is fabulous, and the fun appears to be there consistently. There may be cases, albeit few, where some children may benefit from playing the sport they love as much as possible, but it is our job as parents to keep a lookout for important variables. Are our kids getting enough sleep? Are they training more than 16-20 hours a week? Are they taking 2-3 months off from lacrosse each year? Are they taking at least 1-2 days off from lacrosse each week? Are they reporting pains in their joints at young ages? Do they have good friends? Are they keeping up with their school work? Are they developing other aspects of their identity? Do these choices work with our family values and schedules? These are critical questions that need to be reviewed each season. And because we as parents may struggle with evaluating our children's abilities objectively, are we seeking out the advice of other parents, coaches and administrators who have no financial investment or agenda in our kids' future?

Lacrosse is not a job. It is a game meant to be played by many as part of an overall athletic experience. Very few athletes will progress to play any form of college sports, so when you are making a decision with your child about specializing, ask yourself, does this decision make sense for my child and family, even if playing beyond high school isn't a possibility? And for those athletes who love playing multiple sports, keep playing. There will always be a place for well-rounded, versatile athletes in the game of lacrosse. For the rest of us, we can enjoy the game as a wonderful addition to a rich and balanced life.

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