150,000 ACL injuries occur each year in the US. Most are in female athletes.
Yup Tiger Woods. Why?
Because he introduced the idea that specializing in one sport from birth is the key to riches and success.
OK, not him specifically. But the idea of being 'The Next Tiger Woods'. The prevailing theory is that by practicing one sport all year, the athlete will develop the skills of that sport and become dominant. Then they'll get the scholarship, get the girl (so to speak), go pro and be rich and famous.
Well that's wrong. Flat. Out. Wrong.
But the level of knowledge of youth sports coaches and parents is not the topic for today. Saving your athletes from a career ending injury, peaking at 15 or suffering burnout is. Sport specialization before the mid-teens is a bad idea. Think I'm an idiot or your kid or athlete in THE exception to the rule?
Come on, we all know someone who thinks like that.
Not you of course…
Listen to Al Vermeil. Al Vermeil is the only strength coach to have World Championship rings from BOTH the NFL and the NBA. He is also the only strength coach who has been in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. Al was honored by being one of the initial inductees to the Strength Coaches Hall of Fame in June 2003.
And he doesn't just work with pro athletes. Here is what he had to say in our recent interview:
But why talk theory and opinion when we can look at real research. According to Tudor Bompa (1999), the father of
modern program design: "Regardless of how specialized the instruction may become, initially there should be exposure to multilateral (overall athletic) development to acquire necessary fundamentals. You can often observe extremely rapid development in some young athletes. In such cases, it is paramount that the instructor resist the temptation to develop a specialized training program. A broad, multilateral base of physical development, especially
general physical preparation, is a basic requirement to reach a highly specialized level of physical preparation and technical mastery. Such an approach to training is a prerequisite for specializing in a sport or event.
The followers of multilateral, overall training in the early (8-15) years of athletic development will build a solid base and avoid overuse injuries, monotony, and staleness in training."
Let's look at two studies performed in two different countries whose athletic dominance was well established a couple decades ago. These studies prove the validity of this generalized approach to training young athletes, regardless of sport.
- A 14 year East German study (Harre 1982) divided a large group of 9-12 year olds. One trained under the North American model (early specialization in a specific sport) and the other used a generalprogram of participating in a variety of sports.
- Nagorni's (1978) Soviet study looked at the best Soviet athletes. They started training at 7 or 8, participating in a variety of sports. Specialized sports programs started between 15-17 years old.
What were the results?
Early specializers had quick performance improvements. I'll give you that. But their lifetime best performances came at age 15-16 due to quick adaptation. (Remember that college scholarships are year to year, not 4 year deals. Trust me, you don't perform, they won't keep paying your kid to compete. There are plenty more just like them who will.)
Early specializers had inconsistent performances compared to their multilateral peers. By 18 many early specializers quit the sport due to burnout and overuse injury. Multilateral athleteshad a much longer shelf life. Early specializers are prone to injuries because of forced adaptation. Multilateral athletes have few injuries.
The bottom line is this:
If you want your athletes to have the greatest chance at long term success, don't specialize them when they are developing. As parents it is your responsibility to think long term. And to watch out for the (many) coaches who
only care about what they can get out of your athletes right now. As coaches you have to make sure you are doing what is best for the athlete, not what is best for your ego. And deep down you know which approach you're really taking.
So if you want to roll the dice on your athletes or children and hope they avoid that ACL injury,burnout or peaking at 16, I can't stop you.
But it's tough to look a crying kid in the eye when they fail to perform because they can't meet the level of performance at 17 that they could do when they were 14.
Unfortunately it has been seen it many, many times. The safest, most appropriate training program is
one that is based on developing the total athlete.
Recommended Athletes' Acceleration