Blog #3 – Should our Young athletes specialise in one sport?

Blog #3 – Should our Young athletes specialise in one sport?

sport, child, school

We’ve all heard about the “10,000 hour” rule, often in reference to someone improving their ability to complete a certain skill or sporting element.

It was a common thought that for a person to be successful in a sport as an adult, they should train and dedicate themselves to that one sport at a young age (simply, more hours of early participation leads to early mastery of skills and therefore a higher chance of success). However, recent research is showing that early specialisation may actually do more harm than good.

What is early specialisation?

Specialisation occurs when a young athlete (before the age of 12) chooses to place intense focus on a single sport (and often all year round). A young athlete’s degree of specialisation can be determined by: 

  1. Does the athlete play or train for more than eight months per year in a given sport?
  2. Does the athlete choose a main single sport?
  3. Has the athlete stopped playing other sports to focus on a single sport?

What are the risks of early specialisation?

  • Increased risk of overuse injuries (also remember, their bones are still developing).
  • Burnout (this can lead to kids quitting the sport completely/lead to a negative attitude towards it in future years).
  • Less overall athletic development than their multi-sport peers.
  • Less overall skill development than their multi-sport peers.
  • Quitting the sport.

“29 of the 32 first round picks in the 2019 NFL draft were multi-sport athletes”

What does the research say?

A paper written by Jayanthi et al (2012) revealed that sport specialisation should be delayed until late or even after adolescence. When comparing early vs late specialisation, the authors found that the more activities undertaken in the developmental years (0-12 years), the less sport-specific training they needed for their chosen sport. The ASMC position statement reveals there is evidence “suggesting that athletes who maintain a broader sporting base till after the age of 12, then specialize, are more likely to be ‘successful’ in their chosen sport”.

What does this mean for our young athletes?

We should encourage children to participate in a variety of sports and games as this can be beneficial for their future athletic/sporting development. By learning various skills from different sports, athletes are able to develop a diverse range of physical, cognitive and psychosocial skills and assists with recovery. This allows them to mature into a more rounded athlete, with strong motivation and an increased chance of success in a chosen sport later in life. 

What can we do to minimise the risk of early specialisation?

  • ASMC recommends to limit total sport participation (training and competition) to 16 hours/week, regardless of the total number of sports played and ensure that the ratio of hours spent in organised sport (training/competition) to ‘free play’ does not exceed 2:1.
  • Encourage and expose our children to a variety of sports and games.
  • Avoid applying “too much pressure” for winning. 
  • Allow children to play sports/games of their choosing.
  • Place emphasis on having FUN!!

References:

Australian Sports Medicine Collaborative (ASMC). Sport specialisation in young athletes: Position statement. https://ais.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/716747/Sport-Specialisation-in-Young-Athletes-Position-Statement.pdf

Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2012). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3),pp.251-257.

Lloyd, R.S., & Oliver, J.L. eds. (2013). Strength and conditioning for young athletes: science and application. Routledge

Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L.J. (2015). Sport specialization, part I: does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes?. Sports Health7(5), pp.437-442.

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