Add Carl Lewis to the list of legendary athletes who despise early specialization by youth athletes.
Lewis is one of the greatest track and field athletes in history. He won nine Olympic gold medals across four different events, including the 100-meter Dash, the 200-meter Dash and the Long Jump. The International Olympic Committee named him their Sportsman of the 21st Century.
In addition to track and field, Lewis also played soccer for much of his childhood. He believes soccer helped him become more agile and resistant to injury. Youth athletes are now specializing—that is, focusing on one sport year round instead of playing multiple sports throughout the year—earlier than ever before. Lewis sees this is a troubling trend for a variety of reasons.
“Just for the physical body, you’re doing the same repetitive motions year round. That puts more stress on the body,” Lewis told STACK at the 2017 USATF Black Tie and Sneaker Gala. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin found that high school athletes with a “high specialization classification” had an 85-percent higher incidence of lower extremity injuries than high school athletes with a “low specialization classification.” Essentially, athletes who specialized were found to be at a much higher risk of lower extremity injury than athletes who play and train in multiple sports.
Lewis is also concerned about how early specialization can lead to burnout, which refers to a young athlete reaching physical and emotional exhaustion with regards to playing a certain sport.
“I think that’s the main reason why kids stop sports and why the dropout rate continues to go up,” Lewis says. “Kids are having less fun. In their minds, with the way they’re working, they almost feel like they’re becoming professionals so young. They’re not ready for that. When you have different sports you’re learning different skills, you’re (training the body) differently, you’re having different friends.”
According to the National Alliance for Sports, it’s now estimated roughly 70 percent of kids who get involved in competitive sports prior to their teenaged years go on to quit organized sports all together before they reach age 13.
Lewis also points out that he has found no relation between the kids who are stars at age 9 and the kids who are stars at age 18. “I haven’t found a real true correlation between kids who’re great when they’re young and kids who’re great when they’re older. A lot of it is size. I’m 6-foot-3. If I had stayed 5-foot-10, I wouldn’t have been as fast. It is what it is,” Lewis says. “We put too much emphasis on how great kids are when they’re small. We don’t know how they’re going to turn out.”
Indeed, a recent study presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s annual meeting found that specialization does not appear to increase a youth athlete’s chance of eventually achieving elite status in their sport. In fact, the opposite may be true. The study’s authors found that the current average high school athlete begins specializing in their sport at 12.7 years old, while the average collegiate athlete specialized at 14.8 years old and the average pro athlete specialized at 14.1 years old.
Finally, Lewis points to skill development. Playing several different sports at a young age teaches kids a wide-range of athletic movements, which can help make them better all-around athletes down the road.
“There are certain skills you learn (by playing different sports when you’re young) that are really, really difficult to get when you get older. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time (to acquire those skills),” Lewis said.
Lewis is not alone in his views. Athletes like Drew Brees, Dwight Freeney, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Christian McCaffrey and Amar’e Stoudemire have also told STACK they believe playing multiple sports as a youth athlete played a huge role in their development.
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