The biggest problem in youth sports in the United States today is called specialization. This problem is to be blamed on everyone: from parents, coaches, fitness trainers, medical professionals, and society. This article will break down why specialization in one sport is horrific for a child’s athletic development and what is needed to give your child the greatest chance for success.

Specialization is the act of only playing one sport year-round. The reason why this happens is a mentality that I call “some is good so a lot must be better.” What this means is, “to be successful at a sport you have to practice and play it a lot.” While this is a true statement what is often done the focus on the skill of the sport's development outweighs the athletic development.

Why is this information so important?

It is important because of this one statical number 50%. Overuse or repetitive trauma injuries represent approximately 50% of all youth sports-related injuries. It is speculated that more than half of these injuries may be preventable with simple approaches. What that is saying is that 25% of injuries can be easily prevented and could save a ton of time and stress on the child. It also can save parents a lot of money in medical expenses and the heartache of seeing their child hurt or injured. 

What should the goal be then?

The goal should be for everyone to focus on Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD). Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) describes the life-long athletic performance development model originally coined by Istvan Balyi in 1990. Balyi, originally from Hungary, is the resident sports scientist at the National Coaching Institute in British Columbia. He is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in LTAD and the periodization of training plans. 

LTAD is a useful guide that helps develop child athleticism from pre-puberty to retirement.    The LTAD approach focuses on having kids perform age-appropriate skill acquisition drills to maximize athletic potential. LTAD progressively gets more complicated and more specialized as the athlete develops and reaches the next level of development. As stated by Tudor Bompa, the father of periodization from the Romanian Institute of Sport, “From early childhood to maturation, people go through several stages of development, which include pre-puberty, puberty, post-puberty, and maturation. For each development stage, there is a corresponding phase of athletic training.” Sports scientists use the principles of LTAD to take a proactive approach to athletic development.

This is where the parents come into play.

You have one chance to get this right for your child. If you do not get this correct and do not get your child in the correct program you will be missing major milestones in your child's athletic development. 

There are four key concepts that you as a parent need to know for LTAD. 

  • First Key - Time (10 year Rule)
  • Second Key - Develop Athlete First
  • Third Key - Developmental Age
  • Fourth Key - Windows of Opportunity 

First Key- Time Required for Developing Expertise - 10 Year Rule

Many experts believe that it takes a minimum of 10 years and at least 10,000 hours of training for an athlete to reach elite levels. In Tim Gibbons and Tammie Forster's landmark study for the United States Olympic Center's Athletic Development Program, 'The Path to Excellence'- they provided an in-depth look at the development of U.S. Olympians who competed between 1984 and 1998. 

  • U.S. Olympians begin their sport-specific participation at the average age of 12.0 for males and 11.5 for females.
  • Most Olympians reported a 12- to 13-year period of talent development from their sport introduction to making an Olympic team.
  • However, caution must be taken not to fall into the trap of early specialization in late specialization sports. (This is discussed in the second key)

The biggest take away from this key is to understand that it takes a long time to get to elite levels. So, you must get your child involved early in a movement program and make sure it has 10 years’ worth of programming. 

Second Key- Develop Athlete First

The "Athletes First Rule" is what we call physical literacy. It refers to the philosophy that children should progress from basic fundamental movement skills to fundamental sport skills in that order. This is the natural progression from simple functional movements to more complex activities. Skipping over the basic movement skills and jumping into sport skills too early can be disastrous for the child.

In this section it is important to break down the concept of Early vs late specialization sports and what happens if with specialize to quick in a late specialization sport. 

In the LTAD framework, two types of sports have been identified:

Early Specialization - sports where children must excel at an early age to compete at the highest level.

  • Gymnastics
  • Figure Skating
  • Diving

Late Specialization - sports where most professional athletes spend more than 10 years honing skills before going to the highest level.

  • Golf
  • Baseball
  • Soccer
  • Football

For example, a child who wants to play baseball, if they are trained with the early specialization sports philosophy the child can acquire Physical imbalances, overuse injuries, early burnout, and poor functional movement skill development.

The biggest learning point in this section is to understand what sport your child wants to play. Allow them to play that sport but get them to sample other sports out there in the offseason.

Third Key-Developmental Age

As all parents with multiple children will confirm, kids never develop at the same rate. LTAD tries to break the mold of simply teaching all kids of the same chronological age the same way. The degree of physical, mental, cognitive, and emotional maturity of the child. This cannot be measured with a calendar. To truly measure a child’s developmental age, you must look at skeletal development, sexual development, growth velocity, functional movement patterns, fundamental movement skills, and sport skills assessments.

The biggest learning point is to understand that your child may develop quicker or slower than another child. This will have an impact on how they physically process skills and gain athletic ability.

Fourth Key - Windows of Opportunity

There are sensitive periods or critical times in every child's life where certain skills can be learned at an accelerated rate. It is a window of opportunity that as a parent, coach, and medical professionals, would not want to miss. Even though training can be variable, there are critical times in every child's development, that the body is more responsive to certain skills due to changing growth velocity. We will describe the Five Ss that have windows of optimal training.

  • Stamina (Endurance)
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Skill
  • Suppleness (Mobility)

The big takeaway is to understand that when your child is growing there are different types of training, we want to be doing base on their developmental age. Once they are past that phase of development the optimal window to train closes and the chance to gain that athletic development decreases. 

Why does all of this matter?

By focusing on LTAD we will build more well-rounded athletes. The benefit of being well-rounded is that you will have a more resilient athlete that will resist injury. They will also have a greater skill to compete at a higher level. The biggest benefit is they will have more fun playing sports because they will be good at them. Which will give them greater self-confidence and self-worth, this will only help them achieve their goals in adulthood.

Dr. Ryan  Prosser

Dr. Ryan Prosser


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