The Fallacy of Early Specialization

Have you ever seen the child prodigy who breaks all the team records when they swim in the 8 and under, 10 and under, and even 12 and under age groups, only to stop progressing and end up as a mediocre swimmer at the higher levels? Unfortunately, this is all too common in the swimming world. Coaches and parents alike often fail to understand how to develop young athletes in order to increase their future potential. The most common reason this happens is that they push the young athlete towards early specialization. Let me explain.

Early specialization simply means that an athlete focuses on one sport and one modality of training, rather than focusing on multilateral development, which essentially leads to overall physical development. Multilateral development for young athletes is crucial to develop a solid foundation that allows the athlete to reach their peak performance down the road—just as taller pyramids have bigger bases. When properly implemented, multilateral training develops the physiological and psychological aspects of the athlete to their highest capacity. This translates to an increased maximal performance when it’s time for them to specialize. Simply put, you limit your potential when you specialize too early.

The temptation is real though. When a coach or parent sees their swimmer succeeding, they want to see them succeed more, so they want them to focus specifically on swimming in order to improve even faster. Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, this cuts out key training and movement patterns that are critical to their development and potential. What started out as good intentions, namely wanting to see your swimmer succeed, has turned into stunting their growth potential and limiting the future success they will achieve.

So what’s the answer to avoid falling into this trap? It’s a well-designed multilateral dryland program, in addition to allowing your young swimmers to play other sports. These things will challenge different movement systems critical in the development of the young athlete, and when it comes time for them to specialize, they will have a greater maximum potential. In the end, they will swim faster than what would have been possible if they had specialized too early. Don’t fall into the tempting trap of early specialization, and you will reap the long-term rewards!