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Is Specialization For Today’s Athletes Good Or Bad?

Is Specialization For Today’s Athletes Good Or Bad?

So today I’m touching on a topic that may end up pissing off some parents and coaches of athletes, especially if they fall into the ranting section that I highlight in this article. Whether you’re a coach, parent, or athlete you need to read this and be capable of critical thinking.


So as a strength coach over the past several years I’ve been noticing a growing trend with certain sports that has been on the rise. This trend is referred to as specialization. This basically means that athletes are starting to heavily practice and devote themselves to a specific sport at a very young age in hopes of competing at a higher level as they mature later into their athletic careers. I guess it’s not so much the athletes as it is the parents of the athletes, but you get my point.

Now as a result of the growth of specialization there has been some criticisms from both sides in relation to specialization. The biggest criticisms associated with specializing is that if athletes start to do so too young they may possibly face burnout, injury, and even resentment towards their relative sport, or even towards physical activity in general.

This is a legitimate concern and to dive a little deeper into the case supporting the increasing risk of injury this is especially true in regards to sports that involve a lot of the same repetitive movement patterns… such as golf, tennis, skating, and baseball to name a few. As a result some coaches try to positively combat this by encouraging their athletes to cross train by competing in other sports.

Typically these types of sports involve repetitive patterns that accrue injuries over time due to the fact that certain muscles and joints are overused. To understand this a bit more I’ve also written an article on this specifically using baseball as an example, and how the result of injury is often misunderstood due to a  concept known as  Survivorship Bias, or Survivor’s Bias. You can read about that here.

The point is that too many young athletes (and their parents) compete in sports that involve repetitive patterns in order to specialize to get better in the sport, but do so without any understanding of the consequences.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Now here is where I’m going to flip the switch and turn over the other side of the coin to talk about the real solution to all of this. Everything that I have mentioned in this article up to this point is true and it generally involves the most extreme end of the spectrum in terms of how certain athletes (under the guidance of their parents and coaches) go about specializing in their respective sport.

However, the fact is that even though I’ve been hammering on the extreme end by focusing on the criticisms of specialization up to now…now I’m going to expose the other end of the spectrum.

You see just as there are many problems associated with the act of specializing in certain sports there is another trend in today’s culture that I see growing larger than anything and it’s the trend of distractions. You see the fact is that society today has a big problem with distractions.

People can’t focus on what’s in front of them because all they want to do is to be involved with everything, everywhere, all the time. This is incredibly annoying and in regards to many young athletes today I see more soft minded, soft bodied, and enabled excuse making than I ever saw 10 years ago. To me this is way worse than specialization.

The reason this is so much worse is because societal distractions are so pervasive that a large portion of these young athletes want to be doing all things all the time…and as a result there is no mastery of anything. Basically young athletes fail to understand the concept of commitment and having purposeful devotion to a goal or journey. What in the hell does this do to society? Well sitting right here in 2015 I think we already know. It’s a mess.

This is the other side of the coin and it’s ugly. Now don’t get me wrong I think kids should be kids, but I also believe that it’s the duty of parents and coaches to teach their kids what it takes to commit to something. After all, we know what the result is by failing to do this now.

The Solution

Now that we know the pros and cons related to specialization how do we fix either extreme? This is what’s amazing to me. There are just a large number of people that fail to recognize balance. You’ve got to have balance in life no matter your goals or your endeavors.

In sections of Eastern Europe and historically in Russia there have been schools that have had kids specializing in physical development for years. Now granted many of these schools had the backing of the government and during certain times some of this got out of control with the win at all costs mentality of some of these places when preparing future athletes for the Olympic games, but the basic concept is brilliant.

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You see many of the physical culture schools and academies would teach young athletes how to physically develop their bodies through strength and movement first, and then introduce them to the sport they would be specializing in later. You see here in the U.S. we do the opposite.

We actually put a baseball bat, golf club, or pair of skates on a kid without a foundation of strength and fine motor skills and ask them to go out and compete. This is the flaw in the system. As a general rule of thumb weak athletes have piss poor performance, period.

If people want to teach their kids discipline, commitment, and have them specialize they would invest and have them specialize in their strength and physical development. This would  protect them from the injury portion while, at the same time, enhancing their performance within their given sport or competition.

I know the coach in the earlier video had great advice about trying to influence his athletes to cross train in other sports, but influencing kids to participate in a fundamentally sound strength and conditioning program would be a much better option.

Yes, I know I’m a strength coach and you may accuse me of bias, however before you go and do that ask yourself why the field of strength and conditioning exists for sports teams that are able to compete at the highest levels?

To further work at fixing this problem I’m going to be releasing some big knowledge bombs with some training programs in the coming weeks with a new product I’m developing. I have not mentioned this to too many folks at this time, but if you are interested in learning more make sure to join me here on Facebook to be one of the first to know!

I hope you enjoyed today’s post and if so make sure you post up below in the comment box. Stay strong, be better, and train smart!

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I'm a Certified Strength And Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and author. I have had over 17 years experience in MMA fitness, strength and conditoning, and athletic performance for most every sport. As an author and specialist I've written close to a million words on fitness and strength. I'm also a Muay Thai practictioner and enjoy helping others to reach their peak potential through fitness and performance.

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