For children living in the United States, sports are as common as television and snack time. Playgrounds across the country have several different athletic competing areas for sports such as baseball, basketball, or soccer. Recreational sports teams encourage athletic competition among elementary and middle school-aged children. Though the emphasis of these teams consists largely of stressing fundamentals and having fun, a realm of competition exists within this age bracket that stresses much more. Club sport teams, designed mainly to take individual athletes and enhance their abilities at playing a specific sport, focus not only on elevating skill level but also on creating a competitive atmosphere. This phenomenon of young athlete “specialization” stems from the belief that the more competitive an athlete is as a child, the further his or her abilities will be developed as a mature athlete. Club sports in junior high age groups are used to impress high school coaches. The same clubs at the high school level are used to gain the attention of collegiate coaches. This specialization of young athletes has become a nationwide obsession. Parents spend thousands of dollars each year to enhance the specific athletic abilities of their children in order to increase the odds of them playing at the high school or college level. Is this financial investment a necessity or is it an unnecessary exposure to physical harm? Though the intention of youth athletic specialization is to develop tomorrow’s superstars, the long-term effects of this process yield more harm than good.
Sporting competitions can be classified into two categories: recreational and competitive. Recreational competitions are games or matches that are played with the intent of enjoying the activity and reaping any health benefits by doing so. Though a recreational league is considered to have less skillful athletes and more laid back competitions, the activity itself still can become quite competitive. This is one of the few aspects that recreational and competitive sporting matches have in common. The competitive sporting realm focuses on multiple aspects that are considered keys in developing successful athletes. Engaging in challenging competition and enhancing sport-specific skills are two of the main objectives. Competitive sporting events include all professional, scholastic (elementary to collegiate levels), and sport-specific specialization leagues. The sport-specific specialization leagues are where wins and losses are recorded, and a high final standing within the league is the team’s aim. Athletes looking to improve their abilities are attracted to the high level of competition and specialized training tactics from knowledgeable coaches.
For those in the competitive realm looking for ways to improve their sport-specific abilities, a market exists that is devoted to developing those skills. This market attracts athletes by offering high competition and skill development in sports not available during recess or PE at school. Club sports offer the serious athlete an opportunity to gain vast amounts of knowledge in a specific sport that would otherwise not be made available to them. With expert coaches and very qualified competitors who possess the same skills, young athletes get the opportunity to not only learn but also apply that knowledge. Two equally instructed athletes playing head to head will test each other to the brim of capacity. The athlete who conquers his or her competitor in this scenario will be the one who not only possesses the knowledge and skill, but also pushes themselves harder than the other athlete. By constantly applying their knowledge, refining their techniques, and testing their physical limits, specialized athletes in club sports should be able to consistently elevate their playing ability to the next level. With this process in place, it seems beneficial to begin specializing athletes at younger ages in order to hone skills and teach tactics. Doing this should enable an athlete to make more gains over the course of their career because of the added experience. This then becomes comparable to teaching computer skills to elementary school students in order for them to gain advantages in the business world fifteen years down the road when they apply for jobs.
While early specialization for young athletes seems to be a sure road to success, it may not be the best solution. An alarming number of injuries during athletic events raises questions about whether specialization is necessary at all for young athletes. M. F. Nagorni, from the former USSR, conducted a study showing that while performance improvements are immediately noticeable through early specialization, the young athlete will peak around the age of 15 or 16. Skill improvements will cease soon afterward. Alarmingly, this peak in athletic skill and the plateau that follows causes a mental and physical “burnout” for athletes, causing some to retire from competition altogether as early as 16 to 18 years of age. So, while athletes make performance improvements as eight to 14-year-olds, by the time they reach the high school competition level they were training for, they often experience performance inconsistencies. These inconsistencies are due to the years of forced adaptation to movements that their bodies experienced while enduring specialized training. It is this same forced adaptation that accounts for the alarmingly increasing amount of overuse injuries in athletes under the age of 18. Though early specialization offers exposure to the highest level of competition and a deeper knowledge of their sport, unfortunately it also accounts for the demise of an athlete’s career. What can be done to prepare an athlete for long-term success without skills or knowledge of a given sport?
Keeping physical, emotional, and psychological growth ahead of athletic skill development enables young athletes to tap into their full growing potential. Istvan Balya, PhD, conducted a study on long-term athletic development. He found that children between the ages of six and ten should limit specific athletic training to only 5–12 percent of all athletic training done. These early years should instead focus on developing general strengths such as balance, mobility, and coordination rather than sport-specific skills. Children have a window of opportunity in which to develop the basic athletic skills required for all sports and should do so without excess physical or emotional harm. Training during these periods should be seen as playing, and most of the activities should consist of playground games conducted in a PE class. Activities such as tag, red rover, hop-scotch, jump roping, four square, and duck-duck-goose allow children to develop aerobic capacity while also working on reactive strength mechanisms, fast twitch muscle fiber development, and endorphin release. These developmental movements allow athletes to amply recover from them, preventing overstress on the skeletal muscles and central nervous system. The athlete doesn’t see the activity as training but rather as a fun and engaging game. Allowing younger children to adapt to general movements in varying exercises will help teach their bodies the process of adaptation. Taking general movements in training and applying them to general movements in the competition realm of sports is more efficient than taking specific training movements and applying them generally to sport-specific movements. This is comparable to teaching a teenager to drive a car exclusively by having them ride a bicycle. Though they posses similar concepts, the media differ.
Starting young athletes off with a solid foundation and gradually increasing their work volume and intensity over time is common practice outside the United States. Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union developed a system for evaluating young children to determine which sports they would likely excel in at more mature ages. Olympic coaches specially trained in areas such as body composition critique and genealogy travel from school to school and observe students in PE classes. After their observations, they pull aside a select few students and discuss the specific areas of athletics that they would likely experience the most success in given their individual genetics and body composition. From this point, the students have the option to either begin the fundamental strength gaining program or turn down the offer and participate in the recreational realm. These children could be anywhere between the ages of six and 12 when their training starts, but this process mostly consists of complete general physical preparation (GPP). During the GPP phase of their training, the young athletes first develop overall body strength and fitness to prepare the body for training adaptation and to correct any imbalances within the muscular skeletal system. This period usually takes place during the pre- and early adolescent years. Unfortunately, the GPP phase is ignored altogether in the majority of the U.S. Instead, athletes of all sports are encouraged to compete as soon and as often as possible.
After the GPP process establishes a solid foundation of general strengths, the athlete will gradually move into the specific physical preparation (SPP) phase, where engaging in sport-specific training takes place. Increases in workout intensity or in-season soccer or baseball practice where the athlete works on specific skills for the game are examples of SPP training. The SPP phase can occur at ages as early as 10–14 but usually ends around the ages of 18–20. Both the GPP and SPP focus on training and sport-specific skills in strength and endurance sports such as soccer and basketball. After the maturing athlete trains in the GPP and SPP cycles for a few years (such as in-season and off-season practice and training regimens), training then shifts to a high performance (or Olympic competition) phase. This phase usually occurs between the ages of 18 and 28, when matured athletes can reach their full potential in competition. Both GPP and SPP components are included in this four-year Olympic training cycle, in which athletes reach peaks during the competition phase.
The Russian system for young athlete specialization may seem to limit children’s dreams to play the sport of their choice, but in reality, it sets them up to reach their full potential as athletes and have great success while doing so. The basic fundamental strength developing exercises during training are complemented by tremendously advanced workout regimens later in the SPP and high performance phases of the athlete’s career. Known as the conjugate sequence system, this advanced training system develops multilateral skills. It enables athletes to develop maximum strength as well as speed strength using a variety of core-lifts with the assistance of accessory movements (not core-lift resistance exercises). The more fine-tuned the training is towards each individual athlete, the greater the resulting gains.
While some may argue that the Russian approach to specialization and training methods is not superior to the current specialization and training philosophies in the U.S., evidence suggests otherwise. During the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the former USSR boycotted the games and did not participate in the Olympiad where the U.S. won 174 total medals. Instead of the Olympics, the USSR and their Eastern Bloc European country allies held the 1984 Friendship Games in Moscow. Without the participation of North American countries, they proceeded to change the record books. In track and field alone, 28 of the 41 gold medals awarded in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics were surpassed by competitors at the Friendship Games. In the swimming competition, five new world records were set, and forty swimmers exceeded their American competitors from the Olympic games. Their impressive results were due to superior training over an extended period of time, which allowed each athlete to fully develop their potential and perform at their best during the high performance competition phase.
Even with solid credentials, some believe that allowing physical, emotional, and psychological growth to take precedence over specific, athletic skill training misses a quintessential concept. By training young athletes in more general and less sport-specific means, you sacrifice the knowledge of the sport that will carry them from where they are currently competing to the next level. However, if the training for young athletes focuses on general strength and coordination development, the chances of having a healthy and able young athlete mature to compete at higher levels will greatly increase. Nagorni’s study revealed that a non-specific-based training methodology yielded continuous improvements for athletes well past the ages of 16–18. This continuation of success, which is evident from the USSR’s athletic performances in the Friendship Games, was due to the athlete’s ability to adapt to stimulus given to them through their training or their sporting competition. This ability to adapt came from the general training received during the window years of coordinative strength maturation.
Early specialization’s intentions often overshadow the problems they create. Early specialization fuels the competitive fire in the sporting realm. This added competition puts more stress on the athletes to perform at any and all costs starting at ages as young as 6–8. The accumulated stress from years of tournaments, practices, and year-round training adds up, and drives athletes away from continuing their sport. Some, under pressure to continue their athletic careers, turn to illegal means such as taking anabolic steroids or other banned substances in an effort to ease the physical burden that sports has put on their lives. Steroids help athletes recover faster from high-intensity activities and enable them to compete at higher levels more often. Unfortunately, the athletes who abuse their bodies through overtraining and the use of banned substances are now not just found in the professional realm, but also in the very beginnings of competitive sports. Early specialization has pushed the pressure to compete like the pros on the shoulders of ten and 12-year-olds. Just how many youngsters will end up at the professional level in any given sport? In reality, it’s less than 1 percent of all participants, both male and female.
Early specialization aims to develop tomorrow’s MVPs and world champions. Yet, in its efforts, it fails to see the damage it inflicts on all athletes. Allowing athletes to develop at their own pace and gain general strength and coordination will enable them to excel in their desired sport. Preparing a child for ongoing success later in life is much more important than inflating the ego of a 12-year-old superstar. There are few, if any, 12-year-old superstars that remain as such all through their professional careers, assuming they even make it to that level. The specialized athletes that do make it to the professional levels are not the product of a system that works, but rather the few who have survived the process. The real element illuminated by early specialization is the importance of quality holding ground over quantity. It doesn’t matter how many games or practices a young athlete has. If they are done in any manner other than perfect, then they are done in vain. If a young athlete is training physically through a quality methodology that allows them to develop general strengths and sets them up for long term success, only then is an athlete ready to become tomorrow’s superstar.
1. Balyi Istvan. Re: articles (Quadrennial and Double Quadrennial Planning of Athletic Training). E-mail to Mark Mclaughlin, 7 March 2006.
2. Myslinski Tom (2003) The Development of the Russian Conjugate Sequence System, https://www.elitefts.com.
3. Nagorni MF (1978) Facts and Fiction Regarding Junior’s Training. In: Bompa TO (2000) Total Training for Young Children. United States: Human Kinetics, pp.4–5. (Original work published in Moscow: Fizkultura I Spovt, vol.6).
4. Siff Mel Cunningham (2004) The Principle of Specialization. In: Siff Mel (ed) Supertraining. Denver: Supertraining Institute, 26.
5. Yessis M, Trubo R (1987) Secrets of Soviet Sports Fitness and Training. New York: Arbor House.