Youth Sport Specialization: Filling the Gaps in Youth Athletic Development

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Sports specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports.

Let’s face the facts. Early specialization is here to stay for various reasons whether we like it or not. Some reasons include the competitive nature of youth sports today as well as the allure of an athletic scholarship for college.

The benefits of early specialization are easy to outline. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the 10,000 hours to mastery of a skill theory in his book, Outliers. More practice time, more reps, more games, better competition and better coaching are all perceived benefits of the travel/select/AAU team culture.

As the parent of a 12-year-old and a 7-year-old, I have recently been introduced to this phenomenon.

Youth sports begins as an avenue for organized activity within the community. It is a healthy way to meet other children and parents of like mind, and it’s a way to foster the interests of children and promote a healthy lifestyle. Then, in the blink of an eye, it morphs into a competitive cauldron of intense parental pressure and winning at all costs.

The negative aspects of early specialization, though easy to see right away, may come at a much greater cost to our children in the long run. These risks include higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and burnout. Also — contrary to popular belief — early specialization might be making our kids less athletic.

Not less “athletic” as in their ability to throw a 60 mph fastball or being able to blast a first serve in tennis. Those are sport skills that have little to do with athleticism. “Less athletic” as in being able to handle your own body weight and being mobile and stable where you should be mobile and stable. These are the factors that keep athletes of any age injury free.

How do you combat this?

The first, and most obvious answer, is to not specialize in a single sport at a young age. Why do you rotate the tires on your car? To prolong the life of your tires, decrease wear and tear patterns, make your car drive better and because professionals recommend it.

These reasons also apply to the developing bodies and minds of our children. Playing multiple sports throughout the year exposes young athletes to different movement patterns, coordination skills and sport cultures. This allows children to develop a “bank” of movement skills and patterns that will benefit them down the line when it is the right time for sport specialization.

This foundation of athleticism is missing from many of the kids that specialize in one sport starting at an early age.

As the director of performance for men’s basketball at the University of Texas, I deal with these issues every day. Each year in June, a new class of freshman student athletes arrives to our campus. These 18-year-olds are highly specialized in the sport of basketball, but their movement bank is severely limited. They are good basketball players, but not necessarily clean-moving, robust, injury-resistant athletes.

I spend a great deal of time in the first two months of their college experience cleaning up bad movement patterns and teaching them things like postural alignment and operating in the three cardinal planes of motion.

This same model can be applied to our youth athletes to fill in the training gaps that specializing in a single sport can cause.

We regress to progress by utilizing a series of movements we have identified as primal or foundational. These movements are basic by nature and can be used as a stand-alone session or a warm-up prior to activities whether it be practice, weight training or a game.

We use an acronym for this session, R.C.C.R.C.C.T.  This stands for run, crouch, crawl, roll, climb, carry and throw. These seven primal movements are the foundation for a healthy athlete of any age.

Let’s break them down:

Running. This is simple. Don’t overthink it. Maybe a jog or a quick skip to the more complex three-step cut, three-step lateral flip, to get up sprints. Those are becoming a lost art. These get the blood flowing and the body ready for the next phase.

Crouching. This is squatting without telling my athletes that we are squatting. I like a variety of duck walks here, as well as simple walking lunges for a unilateral variation. Think about this for a minute — if an athlete cannot duck walk with moderate efficiency, how do you justify loading their spine with a back squat?

Crawling. The simple ones here are the bear crawl and the crab walk that give way to leopard crawls and lizard crawls. Crawling is a cross body movement pattern that gets both sides of the body working together.

Rolling. We have a basic tumbling progression that starts with crouched shoulder rolls and progresses to running forward and backward rolls all the way to non-dominant side cartwheels.

Climbing. I had a set of monkey bars in my weight room. I love the benefits of climbing. We climb forward, backward and laterally. If you don’t have monkey bars, a couple pull-up bars, ropes or rings would do the trick. It’s important to keep the elbows as far apart as possible during climbing. A key part of most of our warm-up progressions is mastering the basics and then covering ground. During our climbing we are looking for integrity in the body, or the body as a “one piece” concept.

Carrying. We pick heavy stuff up off the floor and carry it around. We use terms like “walking plank hold” and “building a wall around your spine” when doing our carries. We do farmer’s walks, bear hug carries, overhead carries, rack carries and unilateral versions of all of these. We also like to include lateral and backward locomotion in all of these variations. These are terrific for postural alignment, especially for young athletes who spend a lot of time looking at their small screens.

Throwing. Medicine ball throws off the wall with a partner or into open space. Nothing groundbreaking or special about that. Another simple fundamental movement that works all planes of motion and progresses from simple to more complex.

We have a huge battery of these primal movements that we plug and play each day. The amount varies. Bottom line is it is a huge component of our overall program, because it allows for progression and manipulation.

These are all movements you might have done in elementary school. These movements done in small doses can help to fill those gaps in human development that are not addressed by playing baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, etc. year-round.

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