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What Happened to Play? - The Negative Effects of Over-Specialization

Chris Schwarz, the strength and conditioning coach of the Ottawa Senators offers parents a very simple test for their kids: “Ask your kid if he or she can somersault. See if they can play catch with both hands. Can they run backwards? Do those three things. I think most parents would be astonished that their kids can’t do it.”

Schwarz, amongst other high levels coaches and professionals are seeing an influx of physically illiterate athletes come up the ranks in recent years. They see top level pros come to them with chronic injuries and burnout symptoms because of one fundamental reason: they did not take the time to play and learn different sports. David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, states, “the number one predictor of adult-style overuse injury in a kid is that they were highly specialized. So they had given up, I think by age 12, all of their sports to focus only on one, and they were doing that sport at least ... nine months a year”.

I see this personally with the numerous athletes I work with. They spend the majority of the year totally immersed with one sport. They are taken out of physical education classes at school because their club coach wants them to train or prepare for a tournament. They spend their summers in preparatory camps for the next season. And this is all with kids that are 9-16 years old! We drill these children with individually tailored sport programs, and two-a-day training sessions which are then used to weed out the great from the average. Why are we so caught up with creating the next Under-9 world champion? What happened to play?

“Children don’t play much anymore. Parents are either too concerned about the safety and security of their kids running free, or they can’t tear them away from screens (phones, television and video games all vying for attention). Play at recess has all but been outlawed for fear of injury.

Recreation is something that gets scheduled, like a dentist appointment. And if a child is good at a game such as hockey or soccer, parents are often drawn into year-round programs that exclude other sports.”

-Wayne Scanlan

Over-specialization in short, is becoming an epidemic in sport. Children are not learning the fundamental movement patterns that are taught through un-adulterated play. Not only is this having negative effects on their susceptibility to injury, but also their creativity, and passion in their sport. During recess in elementary school I remember developing and creating new types of games every break we got. For example, we would combine elements of soccer, hockey, and tennis, and create “sockey”, where we kick around a tennis ball onto a small net guarded by a goalie wearing hockey pads and gloves. We looked forward to gym class, playing the different types of sports that taught us to jump, roll, catch, kick, and fall. This is what physical literacy is all about. Learning how your body moves. Without this fundamental skill, our minds and bodies are not in sync. Look back at all the greatest athletes that you admire. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, etc. What thing do they have in common? They played multiple sports growing up. They were all around great athletes that knew how their bodies worked. All the skills they learned from playing different sports helped them to become great at the one the chose to spend the most time on. Another example of this is the German national soccer team which won the world cup most recently in 2014. The majority of them did not specialize into soccer until the ages of 16 and up, some even playing different sports until into their 20s. There is a transference effect in which one skill or movement done in one particular sport can be applied and added to in another, such as jumping on a trampoline and applying that to jumping up for a header in soccer.

Research also backs this up. Over-specialization is coming under fire from top experts in many fields. There is an increase in injury rates, higher burn out, and in my opinion, an indirect decrease in performance due to the lack of creativity and movement patterns learned through play. It has even been shown in some countries that higher economic status athletes (who have more access to facilities and structured training) have higher injury rates and worse performance than those in lower economic households (more un-structured play).

Over-specialization also has drastic effects on our selection process. Epstein goes on to say: “The earlier and earlier the selection starts, the more coaches mistake biological maturation for talent and potential”. Take hockey in Canada for example; In any elite group of hockey players, 40 % will have been born between January and March, 30 % between April and June, 20 % between July and September, and 10 % between October and December. Is this some sort of astrological phenomenon? Of course not. This is because the eligibility cut-off date is January 1st. This means that the select few that were lucky enough to be born early have had the luxury of being physically and cognitively more mature in comparison than their later year counterparts. This allows them to be scouted more often due to their size difference, which in turns gives them better coaches, and better ice time, which of course allows them more hours to fine tune their craft. What starts off as a small difference, becomes a vast one in the long term. So, if you are born in the second half of the year, your chances of making the NHL are pretty slim right off the bat!

Time and time again, we see cracks in our faulty sport systems. Tom Brady, probably the most decorated and talented quarterback in history was picked 199th in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Russel Westbrook never got any major camp invites, couldn’t dunk until grade 12, and for the majority of his career was relatively unnoticed. Now he is the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double in a single season and is on the path to a MVP title. These are just a few of the many untold stories of success. Our own cognitive biases are not allowing us to see that talent can be developed, and not picked out like a diamond in the rough. What we need is to create an environment that is ripe for positive youth development, and not throw young children in with the wolves and see who comes out. Sure, the ones who come out might be the cream of the crop, but they might not like who they are in the process. The pressure we put on young, up-and coming prodigies’ messes with their emotional and psychological well-being. Wouldn’t we rather have happy, creative, and passionate athletes that play the game because they love to, instead of high strung, on-edge individuals who end up burned out, or injured because this is something they are just used to? If a child loves the game, they will find a way to be better at it more diligently, than one who is forced to robotic-ally train, day in and day out.

So parents, don’t spend your life savings on getting your child the best coaches and scheduled training. Instead put that misplaced valuable time into free, un-structured, flow-inducing play. I am not saying to neglect quality practise with trained professionals, but rather to not stick with one sport year-round, and be sure to develop an environment where they are free to try different things. The skills they learn on the street, or backyard, will stay with them for life. When you watch a flower bloom in the spring, you don’t tell it how to grow. You just marvel at it’s autonomous beauty. Let go of the reigns a little bit, and allow them to process things on their own time. They don’t need to be the best 12-year-old athlete in the country. The skills they learn through both structured and un-structured training will help them reap the benefits in the long term. On that note, when is the last time you did something just for fun? Go out and play!


Malcom Gladwell, Outliers- The Story of Success

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