For young athletes and parents of young athletes, it is important to understand the concept of specialization and how it applies to sport development. Specialization is when an athlete “limits participation to a single sport, which they train for and compete in on a year-round basis.”1 Let’s discuss how understanding specialization and related concepts can help young people develop not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
It could be reasonable to assume that in order to become a high-level athlete, it is beneficial to begin high-level training as soon as possible. In some sports, this is true! It is necessary for elite gymnasts, for example, to acquire many of the complex skills specific to the sport before adolescence.
However, the majority of sports (including basketball) should be treated as late specialization sports. Here’s why:
Detriments of Early Specialization
In Long-term Athlete Development, Balyi et al. cite a number of detriments of early specialization researchers have found in young athletes. These include, but are not limited to:
- Limiting and/or preventing development of other transferable sport skills (skills not specific to the one sport the athlete is training for)
- Overuse and/or chronic injuries
- Psychological factors such as burnout, limited time for socialization and limited time for recreational (i.e., fun) activities
The authors note that “ironically, the initial intention of creating an exceptional athlete can result in hindered development and increase the likelihood of that athlete dropping out as a result of anxiety from the extreme pressure to win.”
So, how can we allow young athletes to develop their skills while keeping sport fun and meaningful?
The Importance of Sampling
Research collected by Balyi et al. goes on to indicate that “athletes who experience a relaxed and fun approach emerge more balanced and well-rounded than those who do not, [which] increases their chances of reaching elite levels in their sports.” One way of achieving this is by giving young athletes the chance to sample from different sports of their choosing.
One of the most famous (and, for this blog, fitting) examples of this is none other than Steve Nash. From Sports Illustrated:
Nash is convinced that he would not have become an NBA player had he not also been a soccer player while growing up.
“Obviously they’re completely different sports—one’s with your feet, one’s with your hands—but as far as spacing, connectivity with your teammates, movement, passing, defending, there are similarities,” Nash says. “I probably wouldn’t have been an NBA player if I didn’t bring a unique perspective born in soccer to the game of basketball.
“In soccer, you always have to have your head on a swivel and be thinking before you get the ball. You have to see where you’re going to go with it or what your options are before you get it. And that’s not the way a lot of kids grow up playing basketball. So that gave me an awareness and a mentality to be a step ahead of the defense and be predicting angles and opportunities before they arise. So it’s something that I transferred over.”
Even Kobe Bryant, who is notorious for his dedication to basketball, credits playing another sport as a child (again, soccer) with helping him achieve his goals on the court. From Yahoo! Sports:
Digging into the impact of the sport on his life, Bryant went on to explain why playing soccer as a youth helped him dominate the sport of basketball for two decades in rather technical detail.
“Most of the time, American basketball is only taught in twos: 1-2, pick and roll, or give and go, or something like that,” Bryant explained. “In playing soccer growing up, you really see the game in a combination of threes, sometimes fours—and how you play within triangles.”
Bryant also gave the example of being aware of the “backside” and reference switching the ball to the opposite side of the field to drive home the point that soccer provided him an advantage by increasing his awareness of his surroundings.
“You see things in multiple combinations,” Bryant continued. “And growing up playing (soccer), my eye and my brain became accustomed to seeing those combinations in threes and fours versus one and two.”
These cases support the findings of researchers who present the argument that “to reach excellence and elite levels in a sport, single-sport training is not the vital factor in determining success; developing physical literacy and specializing late is.” Research indicates sport sampling between ages 6-12 gives young athletes opportunities to develop fundamental movement skills and experience a variety of environments which are beneficial if an athlete does choose to specialize later on. Speaking of which…
While sampling is beneficial for a number of reasons, there does come a time when a young athlete with ambitions of playing at an elite level will need to focus on sport-specific training. Around age 13 or so, most young athletes are comfortably able to decide whether they want to begin the specialization process or to continue in sport recreationally. According to Balyi et al., the average young athlete is ready physically and mentally for highly-specialized training around the age of 16, although this number can vary due to individual differences. This is when focusing on basketball year-round, for example, can help an athlete continue to develop and improve the skills they will need in order to be successful.
When it comes to young athletes, it is crucial to ensure that they are given opportunities to develop physically, mentally, and emotionally; that they are able to make their own choices regarding their level of participation in a sport; and that regardless of this decision, a young athlete is likely to continue living a healthy active lifestyle in the years to come.
1 All citations in this post draw from the following academic resource:
Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term athlete development. Champaign, IL:
Jeff Scanlon is a young professional from Waterloo, Ontario who has worked with Canada Basketball since January 2017. Jeff majored in Kinesiology & Physical Education at Wilfrid Laurier University and recently obtained a graduate certificate in Sport Business Management from Durham College. Check him out on LinkedIn here.