The risks and rewards of early specialization in sport

Early Sport Specialization Part 1: Your Chances at Becoming a Pro Athlete Suck

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, the title of the article is a bit harsh, but it’s also true.

The Odds of Making it to the NCAA

The odds of making it to the big leagues are extremely slim. Wiersma et al. (2000) report that 98% of young athletes will never reach elite status [1]. In 2016-17, only 5.8% of high school athletes played at any level in the NCAA. A mere 2.3%, 1.5%, and 2.0% of high school athlete participants played at the Division III, Division II, and Division I levels, respectively [2]. Male and female athletes had similar likelihoods of making the jump from high school to NCAA sport participation.

The percent chance that high school athletes make it to the NCAA level, segregated by gender and NCAA Division.

The odds of advancing to NCAA sport are sport and gender-dependent. For example, females have higher odds of playing at the NCAA level in most sports, compared with males, with the exception of baseball/softball and tennis [2]. Among all sports, the odds of playing at the NCAA levels are highest in lacrosse and ice hockey, for both genders [2]. High school female athletes have a whopping 24.5% chance at sustaining their ice hockey participation into the NCAA environment.

The percent chance that high school athletes make it to the NCAA level, segregated by gender and sport.

But Scholarships Are Handed Out Like Candy, Right?

If you asked youth athletes about their odds of obtaining athletic scholarships, you’d find that they believe the above to be true. In a recent survey of 974 youth athletes between 12-18 years old, nearly 40% believed they were “somewhat likely” to receive an athletic scholarship [3]. When combined with the additional 16% of athletes who believed they were “very” or “extremely” likely to earn an athletic scholarship, >50% of youth athletes believe their chances of getting a free pass to NCAA sport is likely [3]. Perhaps this is a common misconception among youth athletes, as a group. In the same survey, 12.2% of the athletes believed that most, if not all, youth athletes receive college athletic scholarships [3].

It’s wonderful that youth athletes are optimistic about their athletic potential, but there’s one tiny problem: only 2% of athletes will receive any form of college athletic scholarship, according to the NCAA [4]. Recently, 235 youth athletes between 7-18 years old were surveyed about their aspirations in sport [5]. Over one third of youth athletes (37.4%) desired to play sport at the collegiate level. As noted at the beginning of this article, only 5.8% of high school athletes were actually able to play at the NCAA level in 2016-17 [2].

The discrepancy between beliefs about college athletic scholarship attainment, and the reality of earning one.

So, we’ve identified two big problems:

  1. Youth athletes have unrealistic beliefs about their opportunity to earn college athletic scholarships.
  2. There’s a substantial discrepancy between the 37.4% of athletes who want to play at the NCAA level, and the 5.8% of high school athletes who actually make it.

The Odds of Going Pro

For many youth athletes, playing in the NCAA is not the end goal, however. While 37.4% of youth athletes want to make it to the NCAA level, many youth athletes have bigger dreams; 33.2% of youth athletes desire to, ultimately, become professional athletes [5]. In total, >70% desire to play at either the collegiate or pro level [5]. Let’s take a look at the odds of these aspirations coming true (spoiler alert: they’re not great).

In 2016-17, 0.04% athletes who played sport in high school were drafted into the pros [2]. Yes, you read that right; 0.04%. In other words, 1 out of every 2,500 high school athletes will be drafted into the pros. This doesn’t even guarantee that the athlete will play in a single professional game, minor league game, or even make the team.

As you’d expect, the odds of NCAA athletes getting drafted are better, but not by a whole lot. Only a few of the major NCAA team sports have draft data (men’s baseball, football, ice hockey, soccer, and men’s and women’s basketball). Although 22.2% of NCAA athletes in these sports ended up being draft-eligible in 2016-17, only 3.16% of these draft-eligible athletes got drafted into the pros [2]. In total, whether draft-eligible or not, only 0.7% of NCAA sport participants ended up getting drafted [2]. This is in line with previous NCAA data, which suggests that only 0.2–0.5% of USA high school athletes ever make it to the professional level [6]. As touched on earlier, even though getting drafted (or reaching the professional level) is quite a feat, it doesn’t necessarily translate into playing in a single professional competition or earning a paycheck.

Percent-Chance-Becoming-Professional-Athlete-from-High-School-and-NCAA

What About Going Pro Outside of the US?

Historically, the odds of attaining elite athletic status are similar in nations outside of the U.S. In Russia, it was reported that only 0.14% of 35,000 highly qualified Russian athletes training at sport schools, including 2700 candidates for select schools, progressed from entry-level selection to high-level sports mastery [7]. A 7-yr follow-up of German athletes in seven Olympic sports indicated that only 15 of 4972 (0.3%) selected at the youngest level in each sport eventually ranked among the 10 best international senior athletes [8]. A 3-yr follow-up of these athletes noted that a mere 192 of 11,287 athletes in elite sport schools (1.7%) attained medals in international championships [8]. Worldwide, the odds of becoming an elite athlete are poor, at best.

Don’t Get It Twisted

It may come across as though I want youth to stop participating in sport. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The importance of physical activity (PA) in youth cannot be overstated. The myriad of health benefits that come along with PA, both mental and physical, are well-documented [9-18]. The benefits of youth PA aren’t limited to the short-term, either. The PA and resulting muscular fitness acquired during adolescence have been associated with increased physical activity, improved physical and mental health, and improved quality of life in adulthood [19-35]. It’s unfortunate that, despite our understanding of these extensive benefits, most children and adolescents still fail to achieve recommended physical activity levels, worldwide [36-39]. If you know me, you’d likely criticize me for being overly-passionate about promoting exercise and sport. I firmly believe that physical activity plays an integral role in sustained mental and physical well-being and long-term athletic development.

My issue is certainly not with sport or exercise participation. My issue is with early sport specialization in youth when the decision is fueled by peers and the sole purpose is achieving athletic success, which involves a total disregard, or lack of understanding, of the likelihood of success and inherent risks involved.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a youth athlete choosing to pursue their athletic dreams when the choices made are their own. However, it’s the duty of parents, educators, and coaches, to (1) understand the literature and (2) inform the young athlete of the potential pros and cons of their decisions.

Early Sport Specialization Overview

Having an intense focus on a single sport, at the expense of participating in others, has become a common route for youth pursuing high-level sport performance. As time moves forward, early sport specialization continues to become more prevalent [40-45].

In a recent survey of 3,090 athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, Buckley et al. (2017) found that current high school athletes specialized, on average, 2 years earlier than current collegiate and professional athletes surveyed [41]. Similarly, a recent study of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) found that players had an increased commitment to hockey at a younger age, compared with older studies [45]. At 14 years old, most players had abandoned playing other sports, had decided to try to become elite athletes, and were spending virtually all of their available time training for hockey, thereby showing that they had invested in hockey [45]. This is in line with a recent report by the NCAA which revealed that 59% of collegiate male ice hockey athletes specialize in their sport by the age of 12 [46]. Bell et al. (2016) surveyed 302 high school athletes and found that 36.4% of them were classified as highly specialized in a single sport [44]. This is an increase from the 28.1% of highly specialized athletes noted by Jayanthi et al. (2015) in a survey of 1,190 athletes between 7-18 years of age [40].

There are many evidence-based reasons why early sport specialization should best be avoided. Research suggests that those who begin to specialize in sport during early adolescence are at increased risk for injury, reduced psychological health, impaired overall physical and motor development, burnout and dropout from sport, and even family financial and emotional strain [47-57]. These negative outcomes continue to be ignored, or unrecognized, in players’ quest for ultimate athletic success. Avoiding early sport specialization is encouraged by multiple renowned researchers and organizations [57-63].

Early-Sport-Specialization-Risks-and-Rewards

Let’s say that a child is fortunate enough to earn a college athletic scholarship, or even go pro. An injury (to which early sport specialization may have contributed) could result in loss of the scholarship, or put an abrupt end to a professional career.

Practical Applications

Parents should not be influencing, urging, pushing or pressuring their children to specialize in a single sport early in childhood. Parents certainly shouldn’t be making these decisions for their children when the children are not yet mentally equipped to make rational decisions for themselves, particularly when the adults are just as uninformed as the children regarding the potential health and long-term development complications of specialization.

Early sport specialization nearly guarantees that the child will attain long-term athletic success, right?  Influencing a child to begin, and/or continue, to focus on a single sport because of the belief that his or likelihood to succeed increases with this approach is both short-sighted and untrue. There’s a substantial body of research which indicates that specializing in a single sport at an early age doesn’t increase the likelihood for long-term athletic success, and can even detract from it [64-67].

If children choose to specialize at an early age on their own, whether it be for “the love of the game,” because their friends are participating, or for any other reason, that’s great! If children want to further explore their identities and interests through participation in other sports or extra-curricular activities, it would make sense for parents to support that effort.

This article is not about my suggesting how to parent; heck, I don’t have children, nor am I a parenting expert. I’m writing this to share research and information which might be useful in helping athletes and their parents make informed decisions about participation in youth sport.

In the second part of this article series, I’ll talk about the importance of deliberate practice in sport and evaluate the research on attaining short-term vs. long-term athletic success.

UPDATE: You can view Part 2 here.


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Reference

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