Specialising in a specific sport too soon

By Mary Ann Dove

We are seeing more and more children specialise in one or more sport at earlier and earlier ages.

The myth is that to become a successful sportsman or woman, you need to specialise at an early age. The professionalisation of sport over the past few decades has resulted in many parents believing that their child can earn millions if they invest in the development of their child’s talent at an early age.

The reality is that a very small percentage of individuals are able to earn a decent living from professional sport. There are only 15 Springboks on the field at any one time, compared to the number of schoolboy players. Despite all its advantages, Michaelhouse took over 100 years to produce its first Springbok player in 2010. Money aside, many individuals derive their sense of achievement merely from representing their school, club, province or country, but to get there takes years of hard work, sacrifice and dedication.

In fact, authors Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) and Daniel Coyle (The Talent Code) suggest it takes 10 000 hours or 10 years. That would indicate that, if your child specialises at the age of 10, they will reach their peak at 20 years of age – and from a physiological, mental, cognitive and emotional perspective, that is not their peak performance time. In the majority of sports, mid to late twenties is considered the peak performance period.

When to focus on a specific sport?

So what is the best age to specialise in a specific sport? It is a difficult question, but let’s consider some of the issues. Children need to develop as athletes before they become specialised as players. This can be achieved by teaching them the fundamental skills required as a foundation for more complex physical activities and sports. These basic skills form the basis of ‘physical literacy’, which permit a child to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activities and sports. Children can then partake in sport without fear of failure and the likelihood of them beginning a new sport or continuing with one will increase, leading to an active, healthy life.

In addition, having good fundamental skills provides the basis from which sporting excellence can grow. Only once the basic athletic skills have been mastered through sustained, disciplined and deliberate practice, can an athlete begin to specialise in sport-specific techniques and skills. Physical literacy should be developed prior to the onset of the adolescent growth spurt. Fundamental skills include the ‘ABCs’ of athleticism (agility, balance and coordination), of athletics (running, jumping, wheeling/rotation and throwing), as well as swimming, sliding/skating, sending and receiving an object, dribbling, and striking and rhythmic skills. Different sports and activities are better at developing one or more of the ‘ABC’ sets than others.

Some early, some late

Sports can be classified as either early or late specialisation sports. Early specialisation sports include gymnastics, diving and figure skating, whilst late specialisation sports are games such as soccer, rugby, basketball, hockey and cricket. The former group derives its classification because the complex skills required for them need to be mastered before puberty, because flexibility decreases after this stage.

With regard to late specialisation sports, the levels required for international competition can still be achieved if specialisation takes place between 12 and 15 years of age, as long as physical literacy has been achieved before adolescence. As a coach, it is important to make sure that children in your care are not being pushed too hard too early to specialise. Consider whether or not the children you train are early or late developers in order to determine the best time of specialisation for optimal success for each sporting code.

Some guidelines for healthy sporting development

  • Boys, aged six to nine and girls aged six to eight should participate in a wide variety of activities to develop the basic skills of agility, balance, coordination and rhythmic movement. The activities should be land- and water-based and, where possible should include ice/snow. There should be no specialisation in a single sport.
  • Ages eight to eleven in girls and nine to twelve in boys (i.e. the approximate onset of the growth spurt) are the important age stages for developing sport specific skills, but by playing at least two to three sports in different seasons. Schools should discourage focusing on only one sport throughout the year. Children should also not specialise in one specific position, stroke or technique; for example, batting or bowling in cricket.
  • Between ages 11 and 15 in girls and 12 and 16 in boys (i.e. the onset and end of the growth spurt), adolescents are ready to consolidate their sport-specific skills and begin to specialise in a single sport.

Watch out for these challenges

There are a number of challenges that athletes face should specialisation in late specialisation sports commence prior to age 10:

  • physical and psychological burnout
  • one-sided sport-specific preparation
  • loss of diverse social contact
  • loss of transferable athletic skills
  • greater risk of overuse and repetitive stress injuries
  • higher levels of pre-competition anxiety, which can lead to emotional trauma
  • difficulty with coping with athletic failure if success is experienced at too early an age

Should your pupils insist on specialising early, or where early specialisation sports are concerned, here are some tips for reducing injury or burnout:

  • focus on improving overall performance and developing new skills, not on winning
  • make sure your students use proper training techniques
  • avoid over-training • keep a sharp lookout for overuse injuries
  • never tell your students to “play through the pain”
  • let your students choose a sport and a level of participation before you ask for commitment
  • make sure your students take an ‘off season’ to avoid burnout

Let’s grow all-rounders Says Jennifer Van Sickle, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at the University of Indianapolis: “Participating in a variety of sports will help a child develop other athletic skills that they would not develop if they specialised in one sport too early.

Athletic skills such as speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and reacting are all stressed differently in different sports. These skills will later transfer to the child’s primary activity, so everything a child does to become a better all-round athlete will make the child a better soccer player, for instance.”

Let your students explore a variety of different physical activities and sports so that they can develop the necessary skills to sustain a long-term sporting life, either as a participant or a competitive athlete. Support them in their development and ultimate choice of a sport.

Mary Ann Dove has an Honours degree in Sports Science from the University of Cape Town, as well as a certif icate in coaching and Psychology. She currently runs Performing 4 Success, which specialises in developing individuals and teams to achieve sustainable performance goals in business and sport. She is also the Co-founder of Positive Sport Parent (www.positivesportparent.com), which provides parents with authoritative information that enables them to inspire and encourage their children’s sporting participation.

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Coyle, D. (2010) The Talent Code. London: Random House.

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http://www.educ.msu.edu/ysi/articles/USOCTalent

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Dieffenbach, K., Gould and D., Moffett, A. (2006) ‘The Coach’s Role

in Developing Champions’. University of North Carolina,

Greensboro. Available at:

http://bowlingknowledge.info/index2.php?option =com_content&

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Fraser-Thomas, J. Keeping Teens in Sport: What Do We Know and What

Should We Do? School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York

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the Young Athlete. Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.

Coaches’ Information Service.

Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers. USA: Little, Brown and Company.

Hemery, D. (1986) In Pursuit of Sporting Excellence. A Study of Sport’s

Highest Achievers. London: Willow Books.

Longterm Athlete Development. Available at:

http://www.canadiansportforlife.ca/resources

Thompson, J. (2003) The Double Goal Coach. New York: Harper

Collins.

Van Sickle, J. (2006) ‘Early Sport Specialisation, Not a Good Idea’.

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Filed Under: Featured ArticlesSummer 2011

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