This article originally appeared on EricaSuter.com
The early specialization vs. early sampling debate is as bellicose as a battle between the Starks and Lannisters.
It’s as divided as Lord of the Rings vs. Harry Potter fans.
It’s as combative as Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in a lightsaber battle.
It’s as sensationalized and drama-filled as Britney vs. Christina in the late 1990s.
You’re curious, aren’t you? You’re sitting there ready to hear what I have to say.
In fact, you’re on your laptop eagerly scrolling down, searching for a simple answer.
But wait. Be patient.
Look bunky, this is about to be 3,000-plus words of research and experience-based perspective.
So I beg you: Don’t rush this article.
Read it word for word before you send back a witty soundbite that’s totally out of context and is the result of your inability to read a lengthy piece, or your lack of critical thinking to examine all scenarios.
People who fall on both ends of the spectrum in this debate have been awaiting my opinion, either ready to flood my inbox with hate mail or with applause and mic drop GIFs.
Here’s my answer: it depends.
I know it’s anti-climatic.
I know it won’t be the opening act on Saturday Night Live.
I know it won’t be featured on 60 Minutes.
I know it won’t win me a Grammy.
The debate between early specialization vs. early sampling is a loaded one, so I’m going to give you a loaded answer: it depends.
As much as we want this to be clearcut, it’s not.
And as much as we want to call it a day so we can all go home, eat pizza and zone out into an abyss of strangers streaming on Twitch, we can’t.
To that end, the answer is complex. It’s so layered that there’s no right or wrong. There’s only what you’re trying to do within your own universe (sorry if that sounded like hipster, spiritual woo-woo type stuff).
So before I dive in, let’s define what it is we’re actually arguing about.
What is Early Specialization?
Early specialization is defined as a focus on one sport with the exclusion of others. This means kids are playing just one sport, often for a single team, year-round.
Summer. Fall. Winter. Spring.
As an example, a club travel player for a U-12 soccer team in the United States is practicing two to three times a week, with a night of technical training, then a game on the weekend.
On top of that, they’re playing multiple tournaments in a season, with up to three games a day. This happens in the Fall and Spring. And in the Winter? More showcases, ID camps, futsal games and team practices.
Truthfully, it’s been a over a decade since I’ve seen kids have December and the holidays completely off from practices and games.
Alas, it didn’t used to be this way. Back in the 90s, organized youth sports were kept to a specific season, and they generally required far fewer obligations than they do today.
Growing up in the 1990s, my travel soccer season was in the Spring, so I was able to enjoy being a kid the rest of the year.
I was given several months off and plenty of wiggle room to climb trees, play Capture the Flag, compete in tackle football with my brother and his friends, hurl dodgeballs, and generally build myself as a complete human.
This does not mean I didn’t touch a soccer ball during my offseasons.
Rather, I practiced in my front yard with immense passion and joyfully played pick-up games in my neighborhood streets.
I suppose I turned out OK.
Don’t worry, I’ll make a case for early specialization, too, so keep reading before you utter, “to hell with this one-sided opinion!”
Now, fast forward to 2019, and kids are moving less.
Less in PE class. Less in the neighborhood. Less at the playground. Less in general.
Truthfully, I would be more OK with early specializers if kids were still getting as much free play as they did in the 1990s.
Or if they were under a physical development model year-round with their sports clubs (Ajax Football Club is a great example on developing the human, as well as the soccer play simultaneously under a safe, progressive model. You can READ HERE).
But the reality?
Organized sports, whether a kid’s playing, practicing or training for them, has largely replaced free play.
In fact, after eight years of coaching youth athletes, I regularly hear parents complain, “We don’t have time to take our kid to the playground because they practice three or four times a week, then they have homework to do. After that, the last thing they want to do is get outside!”
I understand wholeheartedly.
And it’s a big problem, because playing outside is where kids learn how to be creative and malleable.
They learn force absorption when they fall off the monkey bars.
They learn balance when navigating the various surfaces, steps, balance beams and playground rungs.
They learn coordination when climbing trees.
They learn spatial awareness and momentum when swinging on a swing.
They learn how to cooperate, settle conflicts and play well with others.
To that end, the playground is the best gym around.
Alas, what we are facing now is different.
I could go on about how good it was “back in my day” and how much more active every child was, but I won’t.
Instead, I want to push forward and provide actionable solutions.
But first, let’s talk about early sampling.
What is Early Sampling?
Early sampling can be defined as providing children the opportunity to sample a variety of sports in both organized and unorganized environments.
Before I dive into early sampling and youth sports, let’s look at your career.
Why are you talented at what you do?
No, really. WHY?
Say you’re an attorney. Do you really think the only reason you’re good at your job is because of all those law classes you took?
I’m willing to bet against it.
English classes helped you write better legal letters. Philosophy classes helped you think about problems differently. Maybe you took a marketing course that’s helped you better promote your service, or perhaps a human behavior class that’s helped you better deal with difficult clients.
Then there are the countless “unstructured” experiences outside organized classes and courses that have shaped the way you do your job.
You see, just saying law coursework made you the lawyer you are does you a major disservice. Every skill matters. As left-brained as being an attorney is, it’s also immensely right-brained.
Looking at another example, if you’re a doctor who’s only focused on science but never taken the time to understand communication, philosophy and psychology, you’re likely failing patients with your cold bedside manner.
And some doctors run a business with their own practice, so beyond the medical aspects, they have to learn pieces of accounting, marketing, business law and communication to be successful.
Or if you’re a coach, why are you good at coaching?
You’ve studied tactics, formations and coaching cues to provide your players with knowledge of the game.
But also, you’ve learned about human psychology and behavior to be empathetic, supportive and motivating.
Versatility makes you more effective for everything.
Sure, we all eventually become specialists, but before we got there, we also were generalists, and I’d argue, we still are a nice blend of both today.
Moving the conversation forward to youth sports, how do other sports support a child’s primary sport?
There are more similarities between most sports than there are differences. Some obvious examples of potential skill carryover include:
- Rotational power from lacrosse shooting transfers to hitting a baseball.
- Reactive agility in basketball transfers to maneuvering tight spaces in soccer.
- Pushing and pulling in wrestling transfers to withstanding forces in football.
- Balancing on a beam in gymnastics transfers to all team sports where kids must balance on one leg to accelerate and decelerate.
- Catching in the baseball outfield transfers to scanning air balls in soccer.
- Dodging a dodgeball transfers to all team sports that involve reactive cutting and moving to an external stimulus (e.g., defender or opponent).
- Learning powerful kicks in martial arts transfers to ninja-level shooting in soccer.
Fun fact—Zlatan took taekwondo as a kid:
Even when the carryover isn’t as obvious, sports help kids develop their athletic traits (strength, coordination, balance, agility, etc.) in ways their primary sport does not.
Too much repetition for the same muscle groups without any love for the others leads to imbalances and compensatory movement patterns (e.g., soccer is heavily hip flexor and quadricep dominant).
For maturing kids, this is particularly dangerous, because growth leads to a disturbance in coordination and posture, which hinders the stability of the pelvis, ankles, and knees.
According to Renshaw and colleagues (2009), these bad habits remain when nothing is done to fix them.
If a child is playing and training for one sport, the focus is usually one a few muscle groups, not all.
So let me ask you this: outside of the repetition of primary sport, what else is being done to work on muscle imbalances?
Is coordination being reinforced as kids grow?
Is their pelvic stability being addressed?
Are they working on stability so they can decelerate safely?
Are they working on alignment of the ankle, knee and hip joints so they reduce chance of ACL?
Spoiler: more skills trainers and club technical nights don’t solve these issues.
Early sampling provides kids with the diverse palette of movement they need to develop as humans.
In a study done by DiFiori and colleagues (2014), they suggested that a variety of training reduces overloading and strain injuries in young athletes.
Looking beyond the physical benefits of early sampling, kids also benefit socially and emotionally from a variety of environments and social situations.
They learn to interact in new social settings. They learn to overcome new challenges. They learn to problem solve with new tasks. They learn to communicate with new teammates and coaches.
Myelination in the brain increases rapidly during childhood and adolescence, which is when connections in the brain form more rapidly and the brain learns to operate more efficiently.
This is a critical time to expose kids to a multitude of scenarios in physical activity. Tapping into all corners of the brain is paramount for not just tactical decision-making in sports, but also for problem solving and learning in academics and in life.
In a study done by Seidler (2010), he suggested when learning new motor skills, kids tap into brain regions that are critical for learning non-motor skills.
Another study done by Trudeau and Shephard concluded that children who experience more physical activity through PE programs in school, got better grades, demonstrated better focus, and better behavior in school (Trudeau & Shephard, 2008).
It’s worth mentioning that great PE programs can hit on the global movement kids need, but again, they are waning, and they can only do so much.
Parents must take kids outdoors and provide them with opportunities for real play for optimal brain development.
Performance coaches for youth are also an important figure for exposing kids to a variety of movement.
Considering both hemispheres of the brain when it comes to developing young athletes is critical, and we must provide opportunities for both structured and unstructured play.
Neuroplasticity continues to be a fascinating phenomenon that states that the more new experiences humans expose themselves to, regardless of age, the more new connections they build inside their brains.
An excellent book on this topic is The Brain That Changes Itself.
Another book I recommend in this space is Smart Moves, which details the impact of movement on learning, memory and emotional intelligence.
There are many physical and mental benefits of early sampling. However, it can become dangerous if approach with the wrong mindset.
When Early Sampling Is Detrimental
So here’s where early sampling becomes dangerous: when multiple sports are played in a single season.
Returning to “back in the day,” if soccer were our primary sport, we had several seasons away from it (i.e., the entire winter and summer) to dabble in other sports, either in structured or unstructured manners.
We could play basketball in the winter. We could swim in the summer. We could play lacrosse in the spring.
Nowadays? Many kids cram two organized sports in the same season.
The mental and physical dangers of this are immense.
For one, it can take a tremendous physical toll on the athlete.
For example, if both sports being played in the same season are heavy with cutting, change of direction, and high-speed sprinting (e.g., lacrosse and soccer), it will be hard for a maturing middle schooler to make it out alive without chronic soreness, soft tissue injury or a stress fracture.
Looking at the mental side, these athletes constantly have organized commitments, and they’re forced to tip-toe around both team coaches, who may be fast to bench them if they miss a practice or game due to another sport. It’s mentally exhausting.
And sadly, this happens at all ages, including elementary schoolers.
This can leave a young athlete confused, discouraged and exhausted.
So just like early specialization, early sampling can have its problems, and it’s critical we’re aware of that.
Solutions await you at the end of this article. Yes, that means you better keep reading!
When Early Specialization Is Beneficial
The question shouldn’t be, “why is early specialization beneficial?”
Rather, it’s, “when is it beneficial?”
If kids were playing year-round with the exclusion of other sports and little free play outside of organized practice, I’d be concerned.
Sadly, that’s the reality today.
But as mentioned earlier in this article, some sports organizations do an excellent job navigating the year-round model, and ensuring kids stay healthy amidst a high volume of practices and games.
Strength and conditioning coach Rene Wormhoudt’s work at Ajax Football Club, one of the best youth development clubs in the world, is a clever model other programs should study closely (READ HERE).
His creation of the Athletic Skills Model (ASM) was meant for the kids to develop as complete athletes in addition to soccer players. The ASM consists of working on the basic motors skills of throwing, catching, crawling, twisting, hopping, romping, balancing, tumbling, falling and climbing that are transferable to the contact, rotational, multi-directional and spontaneous actions in soccer.
You see, with a staff of experts, or better yet, performance coaches thrown into the mix, early specializing kids very much can stay healthy and develop as durable, robust athletes (Read this article: How To Build A Beast Athlete Who Is Resilient, Fast and Agile).
There are many youth clubs out there that truly practice player development, and they don’t let the technical and tactical overshadow the physical.
Instead, an integrative dance is performed between all.
Early specialization isn’t inherently evil so long as kids are on board and being helped to avoid physical and mental burnout.
The fact that it must ultimately be the child’s decision cannot be overstated. If they’re benefitting from the experience of one sport and enjoying themselves, I see no issue.
However, they will likely have to work on their coordination, balance and strength year-round not to hit an eventual wall with their physical performance.
Early Specialization vs. Early Sampling: Experiences as a Coach
Now that you’ve sifted through the research presented, let’s give you a break with some experience-based examples.
After eight years of working hands-on in the youth physical development space, here are several scenarios I’ve seen that involve athletes who fit into either the early specialization or early sampling category. Keep in mind the “result” is simply what I’ve seen from them most recently.
Scenario: Pre-adolescent female plays lacrosse and soccer in same season. Result: Osgood-Schlatter Disease, five stress fractures in foot.
Scenario: Nine-year-old early specializer, three practices a week, games on the weekend, additional skills sessions, at-home practice, no other play outside of soccer. Result: Chronic soreness on the left hamstring, wears compression sleeve when he plays.
Scenario: Ten-year-old early specializer, wants to play another sport, but cried because she felt she didn’t have time and her travel soccer coach would get mad and bench her. Result: Lack in confidence at games, anxiety, loss of love for soccer.
Scenario: Thirteen-year-old multi-sport athlete who misses soccer practice for lacrosse during lacrosse season, and isn’t afraid to miss practice when she feels sore and overwhelmed with two sports in one season. She has set healthy boundaries. Result: Fully healthy, happy and rarely sore.
Scenario: Early specializer 13-year-old female, travel soccer player, does strength and conditioning, recovery and load monitoring year-round. Result: Fully healthy, happy and never sore.
Scenario: Early specializer 9-year-old boy, does no physical development, but instead, six days a week of skills sessions. Gets no variety of movement and rarely a day off. Result: Chronic sharp pain down right side of back.
Scenario: Early specializer 12-year-old boy, travel soccer player, does no year-round strength and conditioning or other activity outside of organized sport. Result: Osgood-Schlatter Disease
Scenario: Early specializer 13-year-old girl, ECNL soccer player, does year-round strength training and load monitoring and recovery. Result: Fully healthy, happy and never sore.
I could go on and on with the thousands of athletes I’ve worked with over the years.
But yo, for the sake of brevity and tailoring to my readers, I don’t want to turn this into a dissertation.
Also, I’m not a scientist.
But here’s the thing: I’ve seen it all. This is stuff I witness and hear about on a daily basis when young athletes come to me at my facility, or parents message me on Instagram asking for advice.
As much research as we comb through on both sides of the debate, there are a myriad of case-by-case scenarios right before our eyes in an experience-based setting. Both research and anecdotal evidence are important to look at here.
And based off of this wealth of information, we need to continue to grow our knowledge on child development and take action on what each kid needs.
Some Actionable Solutions
If there’s anything you get from this article, it’s to see what works best for your scenario.
Chances are, you’ve experienced one of the above with your kid or your players.
Here are some important takeaways:
For the multi-sport athlete, know when to say “no” and set boundaries with team coaches. Playing two organized sports at the same time can be too much. If your performance wanes, you experience chronic muscle soreness, or experience signs of stress and anxiety, it’s OK to skip one sport, or a practice and game, rather than trying to cram it all in.
Free play is critical. Go to the playground, wrestle, play dodgeball, climb trees, jump on trampolines. Do anything that gets you moving. Not only does this develop motor skills, but also, the stakes are low and the structure is absent, allowing kids to better tap into the creative hemispheres of their brains.
Year-round strength and conditioning is a must for both early specializers and early samplers. Kids are maturing and need to be exposed to safe biomechanics (acceleration, deceleration and change of direction), and build their strength to be able to handle and create forces in their sports.
Two sports in the same season is a risky proposition, but if your kid really wants to do it, it is best to opt for sports that involve different levels of load on the body. As an example, a soccer player doing golf is a nice combination because the kid is not overloading on eccentric movements from change of direction, nor is he impacting the muscles, tendons and joints as much as a soccer-lacrosse combo. Some other good pairs might be basketball/snowboarding, indoor track/wrestling, volleyball/field hockey, gymnastics/soccer.
Optimize recovery. Ideally, take at least 1-2 months off from organized sports each year. Both early specializers and early samplers need this cushion of time to recover. All athletes do. HERE is an article discussing the importance of recovery, and HERE is a program with sample in-season strength maintenance and recovery workouts for kids.
Ending the Debate
You made it.
The goal of this article was not to pick a side, nor was it to make the divide between early specializers and early samplers wider.
Rather, it was to provide tips for a variety of people on both ends of the spectrum, and who experience a wide range of scenarios.
With that said, there’s no definitive winner in this battle.
Sorry, there’s no explosive ending that makes your face melt.
With that said, let’s just give the win to the Lannisters.
*Waves surrender flag*
Photo Credit: Syldavia/iStock, XiXinXing/iStock, Christian Martinez Kempin/iStock, matimix/iStock, Hakase/iStock, Дмитрий Ларичев/iStock, shironosov/iStock, ljupco/iStock