Part 2 - Early Specialization vs. Multi-Sport
By Jeff Wood, Sport Performance Specialist
Now that we know the various stages of the Long Term Athlete Development Model, what activities to focus on at each of those stages, the key physical characteristics to develop and the advantages and disadvantages to early or late growth and development, it is important to realize that there are many factors that go into the success of an athlete and we are only touching on a few of them in this article.
Now let’s talk about specializing in a certain sport. As a reminder from Part 1, we had two male hockey players who are 13 years of age. Athlete 1 hit his Peak Height Velocity (PHV) early and is physically nearing adult size, while Athlete 2 has yet to hit his growth spurt (PHV) and is fairly small.
For the purposes of this article, we will say that Athlete 1 has only played or trained for hockey from age four until now, while Athlete 2 has played 2-3 sports per year from age five until now. Given that Athlete 1 is more physically mature and has specialized at hockey since the very beginning, it would make sense that this athlete is playing at a higher level and has a higher skill set at this point, while Athlete 2 has been playing soccer in the summer and volleyball in the spring so he can focus on one sport at a time with very little overlap.
Hockey is a sport that requires skill, strength, speed, power, reaction, mobility and endurance so it is safe to say that Athlete 1 has developed all of these areas from playing the sport year-round for nine years and that is why he is a very good player at the age of 13.
Having said that, hockey is also a sport where the movement patterns tend to put undue stress on the hips and core musculature that often lead to imbalances and ultimately injuries in those areas (groin strains, lower back problems, etc.) Athlete 1 has started to complain about a recurring groin problem over the last few months that is starting to affect his speed on the ice. He continues to work with a hockey skills coach and a sports-specific strength and conditioning coach year-round.
Athlete 2, who is also playing soccer and volleyball to go along with hockey, is a very athletic person who is above average in all of the sports he is playing but is starting to like hockey a little more than the other two sports but does not want to give them up yet. He notices that soccer is excellent for his conditioning, change of direction abilities and controlling a puck in his skates while volleyball is excellent for leg power and reaction skills.
Aside from the usual bumps and bruises that go along with playing sports, Athlete 2 is healthy and has no overuse type injuries and plays hockey one level lower than Athlete 1 right now. He works with a strength and conditioning coach to help build strength, mobility, athleticism and conditioning for all of the sports he is playing.
Let’s fast forward to the age of 16. Athlete 1 is now 6’0" tall and 170 lbs while Athlete 2 is 5’10" and 165 lbs. Athlete 1 is still a very good hockey player and is playing junior hockey at the highest level a player can play in that age group. This athlete has had some setbacks with groin strains and lower back problems and is now complaining of abdominal pain. He has been diagnosed with a sports hernia that will require surgery to fix in the off-season and is a result of the constant loading of the muscles in the hips, groin and torso without adequate rest and/or recovery techniques to create better balance in the body.
Athlete 2 is playing AAA Midget hockey and for the first time is only playing hockey this season as the AAA schedule is just too busy for him to play soccer and volleyball. He still likes to dabble in those sports and others and competes in intramurals at school to get his fix of playing other sports without interfering with hockey. Athlete 2 is now physically very strong and in excellent condition while remaining healthy all season long. He has made excellent strides and is considered one of the top players at his level even though it is still one level below Athlete 1.
As you can see, Athlete 1 is starting to experience injuries that come with repeatedly doing the same sport over and over for several years. Athlete 2 is healthy and is only getting better as a hockey player and because of his training has surpassed Athlete 1 in many areas related to strength, speed, quickness and conditioning off the ice but Athlete 1 is still the better player at the age of 16 so there are obvious benefits to specializing at a younger age but you can also see the benefits to the multi-sport athlete’s (Athlete 2) slow, steady rise to becoming a top player in his chosen sport.
I have supported and worked with a handful of athletes who were multi-sport athletes growing up, and they became Olympic gold medalists and world champions and I have also worked with and watched early specialization athletes excel in their sport and achieve the same status. How an athlete gets to the top is a combination of hard work, genetics, being in the right place at the right time and a little bit of luck.
The reality is that very few athletes make it to the top of their sport but sport is not always about being the best, it is about the friendships you make, the character that you build, the teammate and leader you become and the mentor that you are to the next generation of athletes. When we view success in sport in this way, every single athlete can become successful in sport.