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The problem is not Specialization

There’s a recently published ESPN article These kids are ticking time bombs that is making the rounds and has added more fuel to the anti-youth sports specialization argument.

The article is focused on youth basketball, but the arguments are used against youth sport specialization in general.

The core of the argument against youth sports specialization is two-fold. The first point is that there is little evidence to suggest that early specialization leads to the child becoming a professional athlete and becoming great in their sport. The second point is that the early specialization leads to constant wear and tear of these young bodies that leads to numerous injuries in their youth and as they enter adulthood.

Ok, let me clear this up for everyone. The problem is not specialization. The focus on specialization is either lazy thinking or an inability to truly understand the issue.

It is not that early single sport specialization leads to injuries, it's the constant intense use of the body that leads to injuries. Most sports use the same basic bio-mechanical movements.

In sports, you basically use a lot of legs (running, jumping, etc) or a lot of arms (throwing, swinging, hitting, etc). Kids are just as likely to get injured when they play travel soccer in the Fall, AAU basketball in the Winter, travel lacrosse in the Spring, etc . Playing a bunch of other sports will not fix the issue.

It is not the specialization but the intense and continuous tasking on the body without first developing baseline physical strength and balance. It’s the non-stop highly competitive games in all sports.

Most of these kids can’t run correctly, yet we think they are ready to compete. We adults have created a youth sports environment that mimics professional sports without accounting for the fact that young people need to develop first.

The focus should be on skill development. Kobe even pointed this out in the ESPN article. Kids playing sports should focus on developing layered skills in their respective sports. After developing a certain baseline of sport specific skills which will also coincide with motor-skill refinement and physical growth, intense competition is the next natural step. You don’t get a Kobe, Jordan, Messi, Tiger, Serena, without focusing on skill development as a youth.

In years past, the skill development process happened naturally because youth sports was not so formal. These days it’s difficult for parents to keep their kids active without putting them in organize sporting programs.

Once a kid enters organize sports, it quickly turns into an arms race to win at all cost. Parents are not interested in paying $1000 for little Mikey to just work on developing his skills so he can be a skilled athlete with a strong body in five years. Parents want little Mikey to play and win as many games as the league can schedule. We want the championships now!

Once we step back, we can see that these kids are ticking time bombs not due to sport specialization but because we’ve changed the environment to have a hyper-focus on early intense competitions.

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