Rory is an 11 year old sports mad kid who loves to play cricket, soccer, AFL and swimming. In winter he plays soccer for both school and club, and for the last 3 years has been selected for the district team as well. This year he has soccer training 4 days a week after school, games on Saturday and district training on Sundays. Next year, the commitments will increase further with training and matches for school, club and district competitions. Rory loves soccer but has already reduced his participation in other sports. Although free from injury so far, other boys in his soccer teams have experienced overuse injuries.
This is a very typical example of what can happen to a young person with talent and passion for sport. They show ability in a sport or multiple sports, start playing for multiple organisations, and it can become a real tug of war, with different sports or organisations within the one sport, all wanting the talented young athlete more and more. Sport is not alone in this, with similar challenges for aspiring performing artists such as dancers or musicians.
So what is the best approach for participation for youth? When should they take sport or performing arts seriously? What is recommended for their overall wellbeing and development as a person? What is the best path if a youngster dreams of going to the Olympics or becoming a professional dancer?
There are two major schools of thought when analysing the development of expertise in youth: early specialisation or sampling. Early specialisation has been defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports5, and sampling involves the participation in a variety of sports during childhood before specialising in later stages of development1. The concept of early specialisation is supported by research into musicians and a variety of sports. Also termed “deliberate practice”, early specialisation is characterised by a high amount of concentration, is not focused on fun or enjoyment, and must occur over time. Ten years or 10 000 hours of deliberate practice is typically quoted as the required length of time1,5.
However, there are several negative consequences to the early specialisation approach, and, importantly, it has not been consistently shown to be essential for attaining an elite level in all sports5. Burnout and injury are perhaps the more recognised potential pitfalls4. Several high profile athletes over the years have openly described the challenges of being a young successful elite athlete (think Andre Agassi or Martina Hingis). Remember that fun and enjoyment is not the main focus for this group. This is highly relevant in today’s era of physical inactivity and obesity-related health problems. Surely we want our young people to enjoy being active and healthy, and to develop lifelong habits in sport or exercise? Childhood activities also allow for the development of skills other than the activity itself, including social and communication skills with other young people and adults, self-esteem, leadership qualities, friendships and the evolution of a young person’s identity4.
In contrast, the sampling approach supports the participation in a diverse range of activities through childhood and early adolescence. This allows for the broad development of physical skills and the exploration of interests, driven by the individual’s own motivation, rather than external reasons such as winning competitions3. By late adolescence, ie. around age 16, a young person has developed sufficient physical, cognitive, social, emotional and motor skills required for the intense commitment for one activity at a serious level3.
Elite athlete research in sports such as ice hockey, field hockey, basketball, netball, baseball, tennis, triathlon and rowing all found that elite performance came after athletes participated in numerous other sports3. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that athletes with a diverse sporting background are not disadvantaged compared to athletes who specialised early, meaning they still attain elite success. In fact, decision making skills in a single sport have been found to be enhanced by playing multiple sports with similar decision making requirements1.
In a nutshell:
- Early success is no guarantee of later success in elite sport.
- Early specialisation does develop expert skills but carries a potential high cost to the young person’s overall development2.
- Children and adolescents even if they are talented athletes or performers, still have the needs of children and adolescents, ie. biological, psychological and emotional growth6.
- For most sports, diversification in the early development is more likely to lead to success, and also provides additional physical, psychological and mental development, as well as enhancing motivation5
So what is the answer?
Young people should participate in a diverse array of sports and activities during childhood and early adolescence. Intense training in a single sport to the exclusion of others all year round should be delayed until late adolescence5, with the exception of some sports (eg. Gymnastics, swimming, figure skating4) where peak elite performance occurs during adolescence.
Written by Performance Coach & Pilates Specialist Liz Hewett
- Baker J. (2003). Early specialisation in youth sport: a requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies 14(1) June: 85-94.
- Cote J, Horton S, MacDonald D & Wilkes S. (2009). The benefits of sampling sports during childhood. Physical and Health Education Journal 74(4). 6-11.
- Cote J, Lidor R & Hackfort D. (2009). ISSP position stand: to sample or to specialise? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. IJSEP 9: 7-17.
- DiFiori JP et al (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 24(1) January 2014: 3-20.
- Jayanthi N et al (2012). Sports specialisation in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. DOI: 10.1177/1941738112464626.
- Malina, RM. (2010). Early sport specialisation: roots, effectiveness, risks. Current Sports Medicine Reports 9(6): 364-371.