10,000 Hours and Early Specialization in Sports: Mutually Inclusive?

Jun 22, 2022

1997 was a landmark year for young athletes, burgeoning internet gurus, and helicopter parents. As Tiger Woods drained the final putt of a record-setting performance at the Masters, millions of parents, coaches, and educators watched in awe. Tiger's first TV golf appearance was at age 2(!). By age 21 he was the most formidable force in the sporting world. Either conscious or sub-conscious, these well-documented facts galvanized the early specialization movement. Best-selling books such as Outliers, The Talent Code, and Bounce are wonderful accounts of the grueling ascent to expertise. However, they might create as much trouble as inspiration. The message received by parents and coaches often places early specialization into one sport above the value of diverse movement. More importantly, it's held high above "play." While there may be more Tigers-in-progress than ever before, we've also seen a rapid rise in youth sport overuse injuries.

Tiger joined a list of young phenoms like Mozart and Bobby Fischer; people who got in their 10,000 hours at a remarkably young age. The message is loud and clear to many parents and sport coaches: start your kids young. However, I think the real lessons are distorted. When I think of starting young, the intent should always be developing the fundamentals that can apply to all branches of a discipline. For Mozart, that's developing pitch and scales; for Bobby Fischer it's reading people and strategies; for athletes, it's the fundamental patterns of movement. To borrow a phrase from my colleague Dewey Nielsen, getting in your 10,000 hours should have this goal: "Be brilliant at the basics." It's not about sending your kid to pitching camp at age 9. It is about playing football or soccer in the fall, basketball or wrestling in winter, and track or baseball in spring. It is about playing with your neighbors until dark during the summer. It is about learning how to run, rotate, lunge, skip, and pivot. One day it's kickball, another day street hockey. What can be developed is fundamental to athleticism: acceleration, deceleration, rotational power, read and react, etc. No one sport corners the market on these skills. Likewise, no one sport should dominate the lives of children or even young adults.

This theory was given weight when I recently read The Boys of Winter. In reconstructing the personalities of the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team, I began to realize a common thread of diversity amongst the players. Be they from Minnesota or Massachusetts, everything from stickball to fishing was enjoyed. What came out of these circumstances was deep passion for hockey but this was allowed to grow over time. Motivation, just like movement, was not funneled into one all-encompassing sport. Kids who got to play 7 sports with the neighbors eventually found one they loved. This lies in stark contrast with the evolution of Tiger Woods and those who wish to emulate his life. It's unfair to draw from a sample of one but we can look deeper into the early phenom phenomenon and find more clues. Athletes like Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati and Ty Tryon (there are many more) all reached notoriety at a very young age -- and subsequently slipped due to injury and burnout. How about young entertainment stars who regularly collapse into a life of chaos? I hope most people realize the miniscule chances of turning little Suzy into the next sensation. In doing some research, I found there are about 546,000 male high school basketball players. The NCAA hands out 7177 scholarships over Divisions I and II. That means about 1.3% of varsity players will have access to scholarship money over a four-year cycle. For many parents and coaches these statistics suggest that camps and single-sport focus is the way to maximize the chance of being in that 1.3%. While I am all for dedication to a personal passion, I have to respectfully disagree. This comes after years of watching coaches do things like mimic a golf swing with a 15-pound dumbbell or having throwers only do ¼ squats for legs. Collegiate sport coaches look as much for athleticism as anything else. They want their players to be athletes first and it is best developed by a wide range of sports. Early specialization can accomplish this but it carries the likely prices of burnout and overuse injuries.

Research has clearly shown that the body will accomplish an assigned task with little regard to correct movement mechanics. So if a 12-year old is pitching 8 months a year, the task remains the same but the movements will change due to fatigue. This is the platform for developing an overuse injury. Statistics show these are on the rise. The same holds true for any posture specific to a single sport. It's why swimmers have a hard time with good shoulder mechanics and tennis players struggle to hip hinge. It's precisely why baseballers should pick up a soccer ball. (It's also why desk jockeys should favor rows and deadlifts over biking and benching.) Some sports are less skill specific and thus seem to produce more well-rounded athletes. Funny, that.

Let's be clear: there is nothing wrong with sending a child to soccer camp over the summer. Problems occur when a child plays the same sport year-round. There is no suggestion to drop the concept of hard work or "deliberate practice." Simply put, a child's 10,000 hours should be spent moving in all kinds of environments and being a part of different sport cultures; aka playing. What comes of this is a group of athletes who are a) less likely to burn out; b) more capable of adapting to a new coaching style (a highly underrated piece of the puzzle); and c) less likely to be hurt. These players will look like athletes and work in whatever sport they end up loving. So feel free to work on those 10,000 hours. But don't drive by the playground on your way to Jimmy's "elite" summer hockey league. Stop the car and let him go play.

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