Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2016.
During a recent u14 girls soccer game, I watched the younger brothers play 3v3 tackle football between the fields. The parents were invested in the soccer game, and they never bothered the boys who ranged from 8 to 12 years old. The pickup football game was more interesting. There were no parents shouting directions or intervening when there was an argument or an injury. The boys figured it out on their own.
The boys moved much better than the older girls, which may be expected in some respects. The girls, based on their ages, may have been nearing their peak height velocity (PHV), or their major growth spurt. Coordination changes for boys and girls when they enter puberty and grow. Players have been shown to incur more traumatic injuries during the year of PHV than the prior year, and more overuse injuries in the year after PHV (van der Sluis et al., 2014).
Beyond PHV and changes in coordination due to age, puberty, gender, and height, the boys engaged in free, child-initiated play, whereas the girls played a structured, formal game. The boys played without parental interference, whereas the parents and coaches yelled at the girls throughout the game to the point that more than one girl left the field in tears. The girls were skilled at the specific soccer skills: They used both feet, they dribbled the ball, they passed well, they understood when to play the ball back to the keeper, and they played decent soccer. Their understanding and skill level exceeded anything that my teams demonstrated when I played soccer, but we moved so much better.
In the tackle football game, the children played within a confined space. The boys constantly attempted to evade each other, planting, cutting, and spinning to avoid a tackle. The movements challenged the boys and were learned implicitly, as nobody instructed them on proper cutting technique. They simply tried to get away from the other team, and used a variety of different movements to achieve this goal. The movements included contact with the opposition as they tried to break tackles or spin through the grasp of an opponent. They learned to adjust their balance to stay on their feet through contact.
At a recent a college basketball game, the half-time entertainment was two youth basketball teams. The fans thought the players were adorable, as the children, ages 5 to 7, ran up and down the court, fell down, tripped on their own feet chasing after the ball, and generally amused the audience with their uncanny ability to look cute while completely sucking at basketball. This is not meant to disparage the children; they played with a women’s basketball, which was too big, and on 10-foot baskets, which were too high. In 10 minutes, one basket was scored.
While the audience delighted in their lack of skills and awareness, I wondered whether these children benefited from this participation in a formal youth league. Prior to the game, one coach told me about his team winning earlier in the day by 40 points. What is the purpose of these leagues?
Over the last decade, there has been a rush to start children in competitive sports as early as possible. Many believe that the early start in a single sport gives the children an advantage as they develop. Some blame the research of K. Anders Ericsson, who introduced the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by journalists such as Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Coyle, and others. Ericsson’s research into expert performance in disciplines such as chess and violin suggested that 10,000 hours was needed to reach an expert level. Based on this research, and its generalizing to all disciplines, parents pushed children into sports at earlier ages. Numerous year-round sports leagues and teams have cited the 10,000-hour rule as a reason for year-round sports participation, and coaches sell their teams by telling parents that their child will not have a chance to make a high-school team if he or she has not started year-round competitive sports by eight years old.
The problem with early specialization is the specialization. As Rene Wormhoudt from the Netherlands Football Federation said, “Children become good movers; good movers become good athletes; and good athletes become specialists.” When a child specializes in one sport, she attempts to reverse this order: She becomes a specialist first and attempts to develop athleticism and movement skills later. When I start with varsity and college athletes, I often have to teach them how to skip. They have specialized skills, but they lack movement skills. They are not athletic. Consequently, childhood injury rates have increased.
At the soccer game, the boys playing a pickup football game moved better than the older girls playing a competitive match. Few people notice the difference. Parents in the crowd discussed older sisters, and their litany of injuries, including one 15-year-old returning from her second ACL reconstruction, but nobody associated these injuries with their poor movement skills. The players looked like good soccer players, which means that they must be athletic. Injuries are just a part of the game.
The impediment to advancing at most young ages, I believe, is athleticism/movement, not sport-specific skills. A proper development program for this age group would have the entire group participating in a different sport every day/practice. To me, it’s not about the sport-specific skill development; it’s about the movement skills, motor skills, motor control, and coordination. The more variable the experiences, the better, in my opinion. I would prefer the 10-year-old with no basketball or soccer experience who has great kinesthetic awareness, core strength, body control, coordination, etc. from wrestling, jiujitsu, gymnastics, and other similar activities than one who has played only basketball. Plenty of studies have shown that it takes far less than 10k hours to become elite, and those who are elite at 14 are only 25% or less likely to be elite at 18. Therefore, how does starting at 7 vs. 8 vs. 9 vs. 10 matter that much?
The only way it matters is if people are making decisions about who continues and who gets cut at 9 or 10 years old. However, that is a terrible way to determine the elites. To determine the future elites at 9-years-old, you would be better off (1) looking at their parents and picking based on height and (2) giving them puzzles or another task and evaluating their mindset and grit. A child with good genes and the right mindset is far more likely to develop into an elite athlete in the future than the player who is viewed as the best 9-year-old because he or she has accumulated the most hours of practice to that point.
I coached an u9 AAU team that made it to the quarterfinals at the AAU Nationals. Only one player from that team played college basketball, and he was known as a soccer player at 9-years-old, not a basketball player. Similarly, I assisted an u11 girls AAU team that did well at AAU Nationals, and its best player eventually played college soccer, and the one player who earned an NCAA Division 1 basketball scholarship was the seventh person on the team at 11-years-old and softball was considered her better sport. The players who specialized in basketball by 9 or 11 years old never reached an elite level, whereas the multi-sport athletes eventually played in college.
The problem, of course, is that coaches do not want to lose athletes to another sport because they need the talent or they need the income of additional participants. Sports work in their own silos and attempt to retain their athletes by any means possible, which generally means more and more activities, which turns into more and more competition, which means less and less learning, and more specialization.
Unfortunately, specialization leads to more injuries, poorer movement skills, and reduced opportunities for continued competitive participation beyond high school. As the popular saying goes, you can be elite as a child, or elite as an adult, but not both.