The Specialisation Conundrum

Raoul Hirani, Strength & Conditioning Trainer

Parents and Coaches should focus on Sampling of Sports for better athletic development rather than worrying about achieving results in one Sport too quickly.

When should a child specialise in a single sport? 

It really depends on the sport!

However, most sports are the ones where the athletes peaks in their mid-twenties. In such cases, athletes should play a wide variety of sport to build general athleticism. Today, more than ever, we see parents and coaches pushing young athletes into structured practice and competitive play year round.

Should a 9 year old be playing 4 hours of tennis every day?
Should a 10 year old golfer be competing in 4 tournaments in a month?
Should young table tennis players train 6-8 hours a day?
Is there any science to support early specialisation?
The answer is NO.
There, however, is plenty of evidence that shows how early specialisation leads to higher instances of injury, fatigue, burn out and these are just the physical drawbacks. How this affects a young mind is something that deserves its own post, so we won’t get into that.

The idea behind early specialisation for most people is simple: “practice makes perfect”. For others, it is the overly generalised statement that any skill requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master. Even Anders Ericsson, the researcher credited with discovering the 10,000 hour rule, says the misrepresentation of his work, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (17), ignores many of the elements that go into high-performance (genetics, coaching, opportunity, luck) and focuses on only one: deliberate practice. In fact, most sports require much less than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that is prescribed across the board (18).

“An early specialisation pathway demands that children choose only one sport, is characterised by high levels of deliberate and focused practice (rather than play), and often focuses on performance at ages as early as 6 years old.”
(Burgess & Naughton, 2010; Côté, et al., 2009; Subotnik, Olszewski‐ Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011)

This approach works best if you require the young to achieve early age-group success. That is, if the player’s only goal is to improve current performance, early specialisation in the sport will provide a young athlete, and their coach, the best chance of success in that age group. (3)

Studies have shown that an early specialisation pathway can lead to increased burnout and drop-out from sport (4), less enjoyment and higher rates of injury (3,5,6), social isolation (7); staleness (8); physiological imbalances (9,10); shortened careers (11,12); limited range of motor skills (7), and even a decreased participation in sport activities in adulthood (16).

So, with science unanimously against early specialisation, what approach should parents of young enthusiastic athletes do?

There are a couple of models that have recently been developed and have a high degree of success:

One is the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model which focuses on training windows which are age appropriate. Different skills are the point of focus for athletes of different age groups and the benefit from training these skills in the particular training window have a multi-fold benefit in adulthood. The model is based on determining what physical characteristic (endurance, speed, strength, power) a young athlete should work on depending on his physical maturity which is determined by his Peak height velocity or PHV (the rate at which the athlete gains height).
The LTAD model is more focused on training but what about sport? Should a young athlete play any sport that she fancies?

Yes, young athletes that play multiple sports are more likely to develop the motor skills required for most sports. They can then pick to specialise in the sport that they are best at and enjoy the most.

Another model called the Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP), which was developed from studies of elite athletes in Canada and Australia identifies 3 different stages of sport talent development.
The first phase and the one that is most relevant to this post is called the Sampling phase. This phase is defined as giving children between the ages of 6-12 yrs old the opportunity to sample various sports and high level of sport activities (2). The sampling phase is almost the opposite of early specialisation where one sport is chosen at a very young age and the focus is on deliberate and focused practiced. Early sampling promotes deliberate play where one enjoys themselves while playing the sport and the gratification is immediate as opposed to one that one hopes to achieve in the future by putting oneself through hours of deliberate practice.
The Path to Excellence study conducted by the USOC (13) demonstrated that a majority of Olympians from the 1980s and ‘90s cited playing multiple sports as young athletes and teenagers.

Only 30 percent of the 296 athletes surveyed specialised in just one sport prior to the age of 12, and 88 percent participated in more than one sport in their childhood (14).

In conclusion, the benefits of early specialisation are only seen instantly, but in the long run, it is not a model that allows an athlete to peak at the right time. On the other hand, playing multiple sports and playing them competitively or as deliberate play, has more benefits going forward when it comes time to choose a sport in one’s career.

Early specialisation is usually chosen to help the athlete become the best at her sport but evidence is unanimously against this model. The research is out there, most athletes that early specialise either lose interest and drop out of the sport or get injured or never peak at the right time. But as with everything, there will always be outliers, examples of certain athletes that did do well with this model, but at the cost of risking career ending injuries, mental fatigue, social isolation and many other developmental issues. Perhaps earlier the knowledge and resources weren’t easily available but with technology, we now have access to almost all the information available and we must act now to make sure our young athletes are well-equipped in the future and they peak when it matters.

Here is a checklist (not exhaustive) you can go through to see whether there are symptoms of burnout (psychological or physical or both) due to early specialisation for an athlete you may know:
– Is the athlete under the age of 15 and has been only playing one sport for majority of his life?
– Does the athlete spend over 3 hours a day, 6 days a week in organised practice for that sport?
– Is he/she no longer enthusiastic about playing the sport as he/she once was?
– Does your child frequently complain of injuries and fatigue?
– Is the Resting Heart rate of the athlete way above the usual value?
If you feel the athlete is showing some of these symptoms, it is advised that his/her schedule be looked into and that Sports Science professionals assess them at once.

References:
1. Burgess, D.J., & Naughton, G.A. (2010). Talent development in adolescent team sports: A review. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 5, 103‐116.

2. Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 7‐17. 

3. Côté, J. & Fraser‐Thomas (2008). Play, practice, and athlete development. In Farrow, D.Baker, J., & MacMahon, C. (Eds.), Developing Sport Expertise (pp. 17‐28). New York: Taylor and Francis.

4. Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S. and Loehr, J. (1996). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: A quantitative psychological assessment. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 322 – 340.

5. Jayanthi, N. (December, 2012). Injury risks of sports specialisation and training in junior tennis players:A clinical study. Paper presented at the Society for Tennis and Medicine Science North American Regional Conference, Atlanta, GA

6. Law, M., Côté, J. and Ericsson, K.A. (2007). Characteristics of expert development in rhythmic gymnastics: A retrospective study. International Journal of Exercise and Sport Psychology, 5, 82–103.

7. Weirsma, L.D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12, 13–22.

8. Henschen, K.P. (1998). Athletic staleness and burnout: diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance (3rd ed). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

9. Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14, 85–94.

10. Dalton, S.E. (1992). Overuse injuries in adolescent athletes. Sports Medicine, 13, 58–70.

11. Carlson, R. C. (1988). The socialization of elite tennis players in Sweden: An analysis of the players’ backgrounds and Development, Sociology of Sport Journal, 5, 241‐256.

12. Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 7‐17.

13. Gibbons, T., Hill, R., McConnell, A., Forster, T., & Moore, J. (2002). The path to excellence: A comprehensive view of development of U.S. Olympians who competed from 1984‐1998. United States Olympic Committee.

14. American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (2013, April 23). Effectiveness of early sport specialization limited in most sports, sport diversification may be better approach at young ages. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/04/130423172601.html

15. Subotnik, R.F., Olszewski‐Kubilius, P., & Worrell, F.C., (2011). Rethinking giftedness and gifted education: A proposed direction forward based on psychological science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12, 3‐54.

16. Russell, W.D., & Limle, A.N. (2013). The relationship between youth sport specialization and involvement in sport and physical activity in young adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36, 82‐ 98.

 17. Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success. London: Allen Lane.

18. Gladwell, M. (2013). Complexity and the ten‐thousand‐hour rule. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/08/psychology‐ten‐thousand‐hour‐rule‐complexity.html

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