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The Evidence Against Early Sports Specialization

By USA Hockey, 03/10/20, 10:30AM MDT

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Early Sports Specialization and Ice Hockey: Q-and-A with Kevin Margarucci, MS ATC, and Dr. Charles Popkin

Most experts agree, with little dispute, the value of participating in sports to our growing children. Being physically active and fit, learning to be a part of a team and learning how to be a competitor teach life lessons that go far beyond adolescence. A sport such as ice hockey also stresses the importance of discipline, teamwork and being on time.

However, youth sport is becoming a year-round pursuit: indoor futsal, summer hockey, and even winter baseball. Kids and parents now have to choose before 12 years of age, whether to have a year-round focus or risk falling behind. If the objective is to be good at a sport, it should be played year-round to gain an advantage, right?

Parents must be aware of the evidence against it.

Early sports specialization (ESS) has been defined with the following three criteria: (1) Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport more than 8 months per year, or approximately year-round; (2) Participation in one sport to the exclusion of participation in other sport or limited free play; (3) Involving prepubertal children, seventh grade, and/or younger than age 12 years. 1,2

While early sports specialization may seem like a sound argument, there is now a large growing body of evidence which demonstrates that early sports specialization is not the answer or optimal pathway to collegiate or professional athletic success.3 There are a number of reasons why:

  1. 1) ESS increases the chance of injury from sport (particularly overuse injury);
  2. 2) ESS increases the risk of burnout and lowers the chance of the child continuing to play the sport as an adult;
  3. 3) ESS often creates a false barrier to participation, eliminating some who might otherwise be able to succeed in a more open system;
  4. 4) There is no evidence that ESS is the pathway to elite athletic achievement.

In the end, the question is when is the right time for the growing athlete to specialize in the game of ice hockey? The literature, USA Hockey’s American Development Model and my personal experience all point to the 14U level as the earliest time to specialize or narrow focus. There is no compelling evidence that ESS is a requirement for ice hockey success. Enjoyment of the sport combined with an athlete’s intrinsic drive have been shown over and over again to be the strongest predictors of long-term success to keep the young athlete going back to the rink. 

Kevin Margarucci: What role do you see parents have influencing the young ice hockey player to specialize in one sport?

Dr. Popkin: Both parents and coaches play a large role in influencing the trend of early sports specialization. We published a study at Columbia University a few years ago that which examined parents in the New York City and Westchester area. Over half of parents surveyed expected their children to play a collegiate or professional sport! Furthermore, almost 60% of those parents encouraged their kids to specialize early in one sport before the age of 12. We have also observed that there can be a lot of indirect pressure on these young athletes when parents sign them up for private coaching or elite travel teams. I have two sons of my own, so I understand the pressure parents are facing; most just want what is best for the kid. That’s why we are hoping to get the message out that specialization before the 14U age level is not necessary. 

Kevin Margarucci: What about the role of coaches in pushing early sports specialization?

Dr. Popkin: Coaches play a strong role as well in the decision to specialize early. I think we would do well to look to our Scandinavian friends in Norway for a more ideal model for youth sports and coaching. Imagine a country with a 93% youth sports participation rate. The economic costs and barriers to sport are low, travel teams don’t form until the teenage years, and coaches don’t intervene to separate the talented from the average until high school. The result at the last Winter Olympics speaks for itself. Norway, a country of just 5.8 million people, won the most medals with 39, the U.S. by comparison had 23. Early sports specialization is unheard of Norway. I think coaches here would do well to adopt some of these principles with regard to youth sports in this country. 

Kevin Margarucci: What are the main factors that contribute to burnout in youth hockey players?

Dr. Popkin: The short answer is that in many ways we are starting to see the professionalization of youth sports. I ask young patients who come to see me for injuries to write down their in-season schedule; I am routinely shocked by the hourly commitment kids are asked to make at such a young age. The general rule we use in sports medicine is that until high school, the number of hours a week of sport should not exceed the child’s age. When kids focus that much on one sport, the injury risk shoots up as well. The final factor can come from a coach or parent maybe pushing too hard which makes a game that should be fun anything but that. 


Kevin Margarucci, who has more than 25 years of experience as a certified athletic trainer, has been involved in hockey in varying capacities (player, coach, certified athletic trainer) for more than 35 years. He works with USA Hockey councils, committees

Kevin Margarucci: Talk about the myth that early sports specialization is required to get a college hockey scholarship?

Dr. Popkin: With the exception of some early entry sports like figure skating or gymnastics, kids do better if they specialize in sports later. There are numerous studies now showing that for team sports, late specialization is better for achieving a college scholarship. It is not a stretch at all to say it is uncommon for athletes in Division I team sports to specialize before the age of 12. I recommend exposing kids to as many sports as possible before age 12 and then let them drive the ship. I do also feel strongly that kids should take at least a three-month break from the ice rink each year until they are at least 14. 

Kevin Margarucci: Some parents think that if they don’t have their kid in ice hockey year-round, they will fall behind. What else can you say to reassure parents that a multi-sport approach is the best option until at least the 14U age level?

Dr. Popkin: Since Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book “Outliers”, many authors, parents and coaches have really grabbed onto the concept of the 10,000 hours rule. It’s the idea that to be truly elite, you need to log in about 10,000 hours in an activity. This concept was taken from studying elite musicians and has, in my opinion, wrongly been applied to youth sports. Without question, if someone wants to be good at something they need to practice and practice a lot. However, it’s more complicated than that. When we look at what separates the elite from the average player, it is a combination of practice, intrinsic drive and talent. Whether we are talking about a program to give the young athlete the best chance to compete internationally or a program focusing on making ice hockey a lifelong sport, there is no strong benefit to early sports specialization. The literature doesn’t support it. In fact for team sports like ice hockey, paper after paper support the benefits of early sport diversification and late specialization. If that’s not enough, some people are more swayed with real-life examples. On our 2018 U.S. Men’s National Team, I heard from multiple players that they didn’t specialize in ice hockey until high school age. Blake Coleman was a fantastic soccer player growing up in Texas. Anders Lee was a three-sport sensation at Edina High School in Minnesota, winning the Gatorade Player of the year in football, in addition to lettering in baseball and hockey. Chris Kreider also dominated the soccer field before starring at Boston College. 


Charles A. Popkin, MD is an Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Columbia University/New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York, New York. He is a member of the USA Hockey Safety and Equipment Committee. He has served as a team physician for the 2

6 Takeaways on Early Sports Specialization and Ice Hockey
There is literature linking increased injury risk to athlete specializing before the age of 12
ESS is a clear risk factor for burnout and can lower lifelong participation in ice hockey
ESS is not required to achieve elite status in ice hockey, in fact quite the opposite
Parents and coaches play a strong role in influencing the decision to specialize early
Encourage kids to diversify sport and take a break from the rink for 3 -4 months a year
The earliest age to specialize in ice hockey should be around 14

References:

1. LaPrade RF, Agel J, Baker J, et al. AOSSM Early Sport Specialization Consensus Statement. Orthop J Sport Med. 2016. doi:10.1177/2325967116644241

2. Popkin CA, Bayomy AF, Ahmad CS. Early Sport Specialization. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2019. doi:10.5435/JAAOS-D-18-00187

3. Swindell HW, Marcille ML, Trofa DP, et al. An Analysis of Sports Specialization in NCAA Division I Collegiate Athletics. Orthop J Sport Med. 2019. doi:10.1177/2325967118821179


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