Ending The Early Specialization Debate

I was just talking to the parents of a fairly elite 10 year old swimmer in how to deal with the issue of early sport specialization. They were concerned their son is spending too much time in the pool but at the same time worried he will lose his edge if he does not swim enough.  I immediately saw the parallels to what tennis parents and coaches experience and it inspired me to write this post to help those of you out there going through the same issues.

In tennis it is without a doubt true that early sport specialization is linked to overuse injuries, prematurely peaking careers, and plateaus in player development.  It is fairly common to see the best tennis players at the age of 10 go on to later be plagued by injury, hit a roadblock in development, and burn out.  While at the same time it is also true that you must be a fairly decent player at younger ages and regularly play tournaments if you want a shot at doing something special.  If you understand tennis you know how important technique is and that players must hit a countless number of balls to lock in their strokes.  The end result is that we end up at the paradox of “how do I hit a lot of tennis balls and not specialize early on?”

Being both a tennis and physical preparation coach I have a unique perspective because I see both sides of the argument.  I am actually not against deciding on one main sport early on provided a long-term athletic development approach is taken from the beginning.  I believe the odds are good that you can specialize in making tennis your main sport at a young age, remain injury free, and continue to break through to new levels of physical and tournament performance.  The key to doing this is to understand the role strength and conditioning plays in tennis player development.

As I said before tennis is a sport that requires a lot of time spent hitting tennis balls.  If you spend a lot of time on the court you will get very good at tennis specific skills.  The goal of a tennis player is to then accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible on an annual and multi-year basis.  To clarify, by tennis-specific volume I mean hitting tennis balls or playing matches because being on the court is as specific as it gets.

This would lead one to conclude that specializing early and spending as much time on the court as possible is the way to go.  However, you must understand that in order to accumulate as much tennis-specific volume as possible a player’s body must have the fitness to support such a high volume of training.  This is where most people miss the boat.  They have juniors accumulating a ton of volume hitting balls and playing matches but their bodies cannot handle it.  The high levels of specific volume lead to better and better tennis but at the same time all the stress slowly but surely accumulates, wears down the body, and injury occurs and/or performance suffers.  This is why strength and conditioning or general physical preparation is so important.

The ultimate goal of strength and conditioning in tennis is to achieve a high enough level of fitness to support all the necessary specific training volume and recovery from it.  Sure strength and conditioning will make a player bigger, faster, stronger, and allow them to express their strokes at a higher level.  However, in a technical sport like tennis the best way to improve your skills is to hit tennis balls and lots of them.  The trap people fall into is that they think if they keep hitting more and more tennis balls they’ll continue to improve and they will but without a strong base of fitness to support that amount of specific volume, and the ability to recover from it, it is only a matter of time before injury or burnout occurs.  Achieving this level of fitness takes a long time and it is only achieved through a variety of movement patterns and training methods.

So to answer the paradoxical question of “how do I hit a ton of tennis balls without specializing in tennis” is to take a long-term athletic development approach from the very beginning.  Begin with the idea that tennis is going to be the main sport and hit a lot of tennis balls while at the same time working on all aspects of fitness (coordination, balance, strength, conditioning, etc.).  Over time you will gradually build up the fitness to support hitting more and more tennis balls and the ability to recover properly from doing so in order to stay injury and burnout free.

If you really want to do this right you have to educate yourselves or get with a coach who truly knows what they are doing because strength and conditioning looks very different at different ages and the process is unique to each child.  For example, strength and conditioning in general for an 8-year-old involves playing tag, crab walking, climbing, and free play to improve conditioning, agility, coordination and strength.  While strength and conditioning for a high school junior will involve running to develop the aerobic energy system, lifting weights to develop strength, or doing more of what comes to mind when you think of traditional fitness.  But making an 8 year old run hill sprints or hit the weight room isn’t going to get the job done.  In fact, inappropriate training will only increase the odds something bad will happen.

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments below and if you have any questions add them as well, I’ll be happy to answer them.

For those coaches and parents out there who are looking for more information the International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) is launching a product this week called Long-Term Athletic Development.  It is a darn good resource to have if you are working with kids and thinking long-term in developing them.  It also happens to be on sale this week for $99.


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