Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Early Specialization is OK

If you look at every Youth Fitness or Sports specialist, there is a common theme about early specialization. Many of the experts strongly feel that kids MUST play multiple sports and avoid early specialization, and for good reason I agree. Multiple sports create a balance of skills and athletic ability that can be hindered by specialization. I am completely on board with this concept and believe playing multiple sports at a young age truly develops physical literacy, which creates better athletes in the long term. Many world class athletes credit playing multiple sports as a reason why they are so effective.

However, in certain circumstances early specialization can be very beneficial for developing athletes, under one circumstance: it is self imposed because of a deep love of the sport. I shouldn't even use the word specialize. It's more of a deep obsession that has been ignited by special circumstances.

A great example is Ted Williams. If you've read anything about his childhood, he played baseball ALL THE TIME. He would search for anyone to pitch to him, day after day, year after year. He enjoyed playing baseball at a level that few people can comprehend. In our perception, he specialized at a very early age, and according to most experts he would not fulfill his athletic potential. I think his athletic career turned out to be pretty decent.

Many world class athletes actually did specialize at an early age, but their specialization was self imposed. I will steal two concepts from two of my favorite books and authors, that leads to this early obsession. First is from Daniel Coyle who wrote The Talent Code. Coyle writes about the idea of ignition in this article, and sums it up with these three points.
  1. The moments are serendipitous. Nobody sets it up; there’s no mediator. It happens by chance, and thus contains an inherent sense of noticing and discovery.
  2. They are joyful. Crazily, obsessively, privately joyful. As if a new, secret world is being opened.
  3. The discovery is followed directly by action.
Go read the rest of that article, and The Talent Code while you're at it.

The next concept is what Malcolm Gladwell centered his message around in the book Outliers. They need the right opportunity and environment to grow this ignition and skill. Gladwell's research and interviews discovered that many so called "gifted" performers actually were given an incredible opportunity to consistently practice their passion. Often at a young age, or the right age. If Ted Williams was born in the Rhode Island instead of San Diego, he would not be able to practice hitting day after day, all year round, and my guess is would not have been as good of a hitter. A big reason why you see most great baseball prospects from warm climate states and hockey players typically come from the northern states.

Where our culture goes wrong with early specialization is when the passion and desire comes from external sources, e.i. the parents or coaches. Now kids have a full time job playing baseball or soccer, before their legal age to work. Kids are now unwillingly forced to play a sport most of the year if not all because they showed "potential" in their local league. The special cases where early specialization is beneficial, usually comes out of chance and letting the love of the game naturally develop.

So it's OK if a kid who loves playing basketball all the time to play it a lot more than other sports. If he's playing out of a love for the sport, let him be. My guess is most of the time they will want to play other sports with their friends anyway, but letting them have this special bond with an activity they love is something we shouldn't say is wrong. What is wrong is when take a kid who just likes to play and tell them they must love to play, and play a lot because if you don't make the all star team when you're 8, you'll have no chance at a college scholarship. Like Ron Burgundy says, "It's science."

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