Saturday, January 4, 2014
Does Early Specialization Help?
Does Early Specialization Help?
I’ve been telling folks for years now that early sports specialization doesn’t work as well as people think. Kids are more likely to get injured, and they miss out on a well-rounded sports experience that fosters better athleticism and social interactions over the long haul.
In fact, all-around athleticism has become a key selling point for recruiters and scouts. Coaches and talent evaluators understand that well rounded athletes have higher ceilings of potential and those are the prospects that they value the most.
To supplement this assertion, Elsbeth Vaino, an athletic performance coach based in Ottawa decided to run a little test: Elsbeth took lists of the top 10 players in 2012 from the four major team sports in North America, and let Google help her to see what sports were in each athletes background. For the sake of consistency, she went with lists compiled by ESPN. You may not agree with their list, but she felt it was best to go with a single source for top 10 lists for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL; and ESPN seemed the best option.
According to Elsbeth:
Would you believe me if I told you 7 out of 40? Only 18% of the top professional athletes were single-sport athletes. Or to look at it another way, 82% played multiple sports.
It may actually be more than that: for the 7 professionals listed as playing only one sport, I was not actually able to confirm this: I just wasn’t able to find any reference to them playing other sports.
You can see the full list of players on each top 10 list as well as the other sports they played at the bottom of this article. 
Here in the great Midwest we are perfectly positioned to develop all-around athletes. As we are experiencing this week the winters can be particularly brutal making it an opportune time to play indoor sports such as basketball, volleyball (yes, this is a fall sport now but it still seems odd), gymnastics, hockey and wrestling. When the weather turns in the spring we can head outside and dust off the baseball and softball equipment in addition to track and field and girls’ soccer. Come summer we can get a little bit of everything in and that includes plenty of unstructured free play like swimming in addition to golf, tennis and running up the Great Bear Dunes on the family vacation. Come late summer and fall the boys can prepare for soccer and football and the girls can play volleyball, golf and more soccer.
The seasons provide a great opportunity to give our young athletes a break from all the demands that pile up from playing one sport. It allows them to refresh their mind and bodies while also learning new skills and developing physical qualities like strength, endurance and speed in different environments. All of which build and enhance the overall athletic base of the child.
Early and excessive (9-12 months a year) participation in one sport is a real issue in regard to dampening long term potential. Kids burn out emotionally because the routine becomes overbearing almost like a 9 to 5 job and they lose their passion (the absolute key to success in any endeavor, athletic or otherwise). If a child begs you to stay in their sport year round consider that they also would like to eat cookies and pizza all day long but you don’t allow them to do that. Too much is too much even if it’s something good for them like sport participation. Balance their athletic seasons just as you would insist that they balance their dietary intake.
Additionally, consider a sport like baseball where more of the top schools are recruiting in areas that traditionally have not been hotbeds of talent like the Midwest and Northeast. Why? Because kids in these areas have less wear and tear due to the weather changes and are more apt to play multiple sports. Athletes from these non-traditional areas have larger windows of adaptation (long term growth potential) because their bodies aren’t as beat up or used up and they generally possess that multiple sport background.
The athletic development process does not have to be that complex and next week I will begin a to lie out a plan that will ensure that your young athletes’ journey is a smooth one.
As promised, here are ESPN lists of the top 10 players (2012 seasons) in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Alongside each player, Elsbeth identified the sport or sports they played in addition to their professional sport. Where no specific reference is indicated, the information was taken from either Wikipedia or Jockbio. 
Top 10 players in the NBA
Single sport athletes: 1 out of 10.
• LeBron James (Football, All-State wide receiver in high school)
• Dwight Howard (Looks to be just basketball)
• Dwyane Wade (Football)
• Chris Paul (Football)
• Dirk Nowitzki (Tennis and team handball)
• Kevin Durant (Football)
• Kobe Bryant (Soccer)
• Derrick Rose (Baseball)
• Deron Williams (Wrestling)
• Blake Griffin (Football and baseball)
Blake Griffin: ”Everything you play helps to whatever you pick in the end“
Below in the references you will find a link to a nice video of Griffin describing his athletic upbringing. 
Here’s an interesting comment from Kobe Bryant:
“I’m comfortable (with basketball) footwork because I played soccer,” said Bryant. “From changing up rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable with having my right foot as my pivot foot and my left foot as my pivot foot.”
Top 10 players in the NFL
Single-sport athletes: 0 out of 10.
• Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Baseball. In the 1995 draft, the Montreal Expos picked him in the 18th round)
• Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (Basketball and baseball)
• Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (Baseball and basketball)
• Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (Soccer, basketball and baseball)
• Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (Basketball and baseball)
• Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (Track and field: 100, 200, triple jump and long jump)
• Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (Baseball and basketball)
• Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (Track: 100 m)
• Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (Baseball and basketball)
• Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles (Baseball and basketball)
Top 10 players in Major League Baseball
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
• Albert Pujols (No evidence of other sports)
• Roy Halladay (Basketball and cross-country running)
• Miguel Cabrera (Basketball and volleyball. He was offered a pro contract from a volleyball team in Switzerland)
• Justin Verlander (No evidence of other sports)
• Felix Hernandez (Basketball)
• Ryan Braun (Basketball, soccer, football)
• Clayton Kershaw (Soccer)
• Troy Tulowitzki (Basketball. He averaged 22.6 points per game his senior year of high school)
• Tim Lincecum (Likely a single sport athlete)
• Robinson Cano (Basketball)
Top 10 players in the NHL
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
• Sidney Crosby (Baseball)
• Jonathan Toews (No evidence of other sports)
• Evgeni Malkin (There was a reference to playing volleyball, but it was weak so I listed him as single-sport)
• Pavel Datsyuk (Soccer)
• Claude Giroux (No specific sport listed but: “I played a lot of sports when I was a kid and I was always pretty good. Hockey was definitely my favorite and at some point I decided that I wanted to see how far I could go with it”)
• Steven Stamkos (Baseball, soccer, golf and lacrosse)
• Shea Weber (Baseball. He was a pitcher and shortstop until he was 16)
• Alex Ovechkin (Soccer and basketball)
• Zdeno Chara (No evidence of other sports. But a commitment to exercise and training outside of hockey.)
• Daniel Sedin (Soccer)
Other articles related to this topic:
Wanted: True Athletes!
The following story is from a man whom played and coached in the National Hockey League and now directs a league that scouts for amateur talent. I would encourage you to read the story as this man lends his valuable perspective on the fallout from early specialization:
Rose Bowl Champs set to add rare commodity; the two-way athlete…
 Blake Griffin