The Truth About Specialization

Encouraging… pushing a child to specialize in a sport young could lead to amazing athletic achievements.  Practice, practice, and more practice leads to excellence and Ericsson’s research over the years has made this abundantly clear.  The recent New York Times article In Talent, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture further reminds us of this reality.  This reminder is a good thing… it highlights the fact that effort trumps talent in the long run.  Searching for someone with sports ability is only the tip of the athletic excellence iceberg.  Good coaching, a supportive social environment, competitive opportunities, and individual effort lead to success at the highest of high levels.

The author of the NYT article wisely points out that this wisdom could encourage adults to push young athletes to specialize early, encouraging rigorous work on the courts and fields in order to achieve great athletic achievements.  The truth is, this approach might develop a great athlete… beyond simply considering the reality that hard work equals success, Law, Côté, and Ericsson found in 2007 that early commitment to deliberate practice is the difference between being an Olympic versus “only” an international level rhythmic gymnasts.  Furthermore, Leisha Strachan, Jean Côté, and Janice Deakin in 2009 found that there were few differences in the learning of the “‘building blocks’ of positive [psychological] development” and enjoyment.  While it might not be politically correct to suggest, maybe encouraging single sport participation from a young age is not such a bad idea…

David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, did a nice job putting this idea to rest, “I want my kids to aspire to greatness.  I want them to work hard and to have the deep satisfaction of striving. But I don’t want them to have a two-dimensional life.”

Regardless of the potential for athletic greatness through specialization, their are social, emotional, and physical costs that are likely.  Pushing a child to practice and train for one sport opens up a question of values.  What does the family value?  What does the community as a whole value?  How much does the community value the overall physical and social development of the individual.

While a balanced approach to sport may not be the way to develop a super-successful athlete (balanced does develop solid college athletes and more) and although specialization led by exceptionally talent adult leaders may not cause gross damage to positive psychological development, there are clear costs to the youth athlete over-dosing on one sport.  Physically, repetitive use injury is more likely.  Psychologically, exhaustion and burnout are likely.  Socially, there are fewer community connections and integration of sport and family.  Like Shenk suggests, specialization leads to a “two-dimensional” life.

The social-psychological “casualties” of an intense approach to sport are often evident… Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Tiger Woods…  The responsible sports family and community, examines its values regularly.  Do they value the child as both an athlete and a person?  Do they value athletic achievement over athlete wellness?  Other value reflections can be added to this list.  Ultimately, it is true that effort trumps talent on the journey towards excellence.  With this being said, it is also important to remember that there is no one route to athletic excellence, but there are many direct routes to ensuring poor athletic experiences.

Pushing the young athlete towards early efforts and achievements may be tempting, but one must question the ultimate costs and benefits of such behaviors.  Think hard, decide wisely, reflect often.


2 Responses to “The Truth About Specialization”

  1. 1 Brian McCormick April 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Gymnastics is also an early specialization sport because most gymnasts peak in their early teens due the demands on the body and the gymnast. Most team sports are late specialization sports because players do not peak until their 20’s, leaving plenty of time for deliberate practice without early specialization. Comparing gymnasts with basketball or football players is like comparing apples and oranges. Finally, Cote and others offer a less restrictive opinion on deliberate practice and the 10,000 hours to excellence which includes deliberate play into the equation. Playing a second or third sport may not directly develop one’s sport-specific skills, but may indirectly enhance the development, as Steve Nash credits his soccer background with some of his footwork and peripheral vision, while LeBron james’ time as a gigantic wide receiver certainly helps his body awareness and agility when driving through traffic and Wes Welker’s soccer assists his footwork and vision in football, while Tony Gonzalez and Antonio gates certainly use their basketball backgrounds with their footwork and body awareness in football.

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