Dec 8 2014

Early Sport Specialization

Early Sport Specialization

Many people assume that the only way to achieve expertise in sport is to specialize early in a sport.  However, recent evidence suggests an alternative to early specialization called "sport sampling.”  It appears that early specialization is not the only path to Olympic or World-class status and in fact, may not be the best path.

Deliberate Practice and early specialization

The theory of deliberate practice was developed by Ericsson and colleagues and extended to other domains such as music, mathematics, and sports.  The basic premise is that in order to achieve expertise in a particular domain it requires deliberate practice for a minimum of 10 years.

Early specialization in sports is a reality among many young athletes. Many parents, coaches, and children are under the belief that the only way to reach the elite level in a sport is to start at an early age and train for that sport year-round. Home environments are increasingly becoming more "child-centered". This means the parents are channeling their own interests towards the interests and activities of the child. This is seen in decreased "play" time and an increase in organized activities.

Trends of Olympic and world-class athletes

It is clear that early specialization is not the only route to success at the Olympic level.  World-class athletes tend to have relatively delayed development in their main sport, higher participation in "other" sports, and selected by federations' talent identification programs at a significantly older age. A higher percentage of World-class athletes compared to National-class athletes invested more participation hours in other sports.  Approximately every second training session up to age 10 was in a different sport and from ages 11-14 every third training session was in a different sport.  Swimming is often thought of as a sport where early specialization is mandatory, but swimmers who specialized early were found to spend less time on the national team and drop out earlier than those who specialized later. 

Benefits of sport sampling

Sampling various sports at young ages offers a few advantages. For example, there is an increased probability of matching a talented individual with the sport that he or she is most talented for. There may also be motor development advantages with varied stimuli. Experiences with different sports may provide a young athlete with important abilities that may prove beneficial in the development of sport specific skills needed to attain elite performance levels in their future sport of choice.  There is also less risk of burnout or emotional fatigue when sports are varied at young ages. Early specialization can lead to attrition, negative health outcomes (including increased injury risk), and reduced intrinsic motivation.  Early diversification, however, promotes the development of intrinsic motivation, which becomes an important factor at the senior level when involvement becomes more self-regulated.

Talent identification programs

Forecasting talent years in advance remains problematic.  At young ages, taller or earlier-maturing athletes have a significant advantage, which does not necessarily carry over to adulthood. Instead of nurturing long-term development, early talent identification results in early de-selection.  Traditional talent identification programs are likely to exclude many promising, late-maturing athletes from development programs.  Most talent identification programs occur at ages 8-12, which fail to identify many athletes that have yet to specialize in a single sport. Since children mature at different rates and often change body types, early specialization in a single sport could actually cause a child to specialize in the wrong sport or drop out of one sport before realizing potential in another. Additionally, when Olympic athletes were studied, a considerable number began training only after the traditional age of talent identification. This calls into question the effectiveness or even the purpose of traditional talent identification programs.

Early diversification or sport sampling avoids many of the pitfalls of early specialization and may offer individual and collective advantages. Talent identification programs at young ages should be abandoned in favor of long-term development.  If early de-selection can be avoided, talented but inexperience or undeveloped individuals could continue to participate and re-enter a given sport at any developmental stage.  Children often show signs of athletic potential, which must be encouraged, but kept in perspective.  The attainment of expertise in competitive sports by definition is only possible for the very few, but the process of elite sport development should be a positive and rewarding experience.

-Researched and written by Dogma Athletica Trainer and Professional Xterra Triathlete, Josiah Middaugh