Elite performance via early specialisation
Posted by Dean Holden at July 4th, 2013
by Pathways to the Podium Research Team, 23 March 2011
One of the hottest topics being discussed on coaching blogs around the world at the moment is whether it is necessary to specialise in a single sport from an early age in order to maximise sporting potential. While we’re all pretty clear on the message that early specialisation comes with a lot of risks that in most cases outweigh the benefits, a series on pathways to elite performance would be incomplete without addressing elite performance via early specialisation. To put a slightly different twist on early specialisation in sport, this post will discuss not only the benefits and risks of early specialisation, but also how we are encouraging early specialisation despite being fully aware of its negative consequences.
What is early specialisation in sport?
To make sure that we’re all on the same page throughout this discussion, let’s define early specialisation in sport. First, specialisation in sport refers to year-round participation in a single sport, at the exclusion of other sports and activities (1). Early specialisation is further characterised by an early start age of participation, early involvement in competition, intensive involvement from an early age, and an early focus on performance improvement and achieving success (2). So we are talking about young athletes devoting large amounts of time and effort towards a single sport, with a targeted focus on high performance.
What are the benefits of early specialisation in sport?
Most articles relating to early specialisation in sport concentrate on the risks of intense engagement in a single sport from an early age, but at the same time, we must acknowledge that it is not all bad news.
Remember back to my earlier posts on deliberate practice and the 10 year / 10,000 hour rule. The 10 year / 10,000 hour rule states that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest level of performance in a given domain, and the theory of deliberate practice extends this to suggest that these 10,000 hours of practice must be highly effortful and specifically focussed on improving performance in order to be effective. While my earlier post suggested that 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice were not essential pre-requisites for international sports performance, early specialisation certainly gives you a head start on accumulating those hours. Essentially, the underlying assumption is that early engagement in intense, highly focussed practice and competition activities allows young athletes to reach higher levels of performance more quickly than athletes who delay specialisation (2). This is important, because there are a number of positive outcomes that arise following early success in sport, including an increased sense of competency, self-confidence, and self-worth, increased recognition, and increased potential for selection for high performance squads and collegiate athletic scholarships (6,7).
Early specialisation is particularly beneficial in sports where athletes reach their peak before or around puberty (6). Sports like gymnastics and figure skating require intensive involvement in practice and competition from an early age because athletes are often competing at the international level from as young as 12 years of age, and typically find themselves with the title of World, Commonwealth or Olympic Champion by around age 15 (8). In these sports, early specialisation is considered essential, regardless of the risks. Speaking of the risks…..
What are the negative consequences of early specialisation in sport?
I am pretty sure that I am preaching to the converted, but it would be irresponsible of me not to mention the dark side of early specialisation in sport. Although yes, early specialisation can lead to early success in sport, the benefits are typically short-lived, and before too long, negative consequences of working so hard towards a single goal begin to show their ugly face.
From a physical perspective, participation in a single sport from an early age actually restricts the athlete’s skill repertoire (1). To reverse the old adage – athletes who specialise early tend to become a Master of 1 trade, but Jack of none i.e. they become very good at their sport of interest, but lack the basic motor skills to participate in other sports. I like to use myself as an example for this one: I started gymnastics when I was 5, retired on a Friday when I was 12 after competing regularly at the national level; I started diving the very next day, and competed at the national level in diving from age 12 right through to age 23 when I rolled up the chamois and hung my towel out to dry. Aside from 2 or 3 seasons playing on my high school netball and water polo teams, I did not train or compete in any other sports. I can do both a forward and a backward somersault on demand, but ask me to throw, catch, or hit a ball, and I am completely lost! On top of this, high intensity training before physical maturation increases risk of injury and can delay physical development (2,7). Together, restricted motor skill development and a high potential for injury may limit the athlete’s opportunities for participation in other sports at a later age, both competitively and recreationally, once their career in their main sport is over.
Psychologically, early specialisation in sport is often accompanied by increased pressure to succeed. After devoting significant amounts of time, money, and effort, parents, coaches, and athletes set high expectations, which can unfortunately result in a sense of failure when these expectations are not met (2). In addition, as mentioned earlier, intense involvement in sport limits the time that the athlete can participate in other organised activities and even free play (7). Time constraints, increased pressure to succeed, and psychological distress make sport less enjoyable, and can contribute to emotional and physical exhaustion, or even complete withdrawal from the activity (1,2,7).
Finally, early specialisation in sport can have sociological consequences. The hefty time commitment required for training and competition can lead to social isolation as the athlete has limited opportunities to interact with others outside of sport (1,2,7). Participation in a single activity can also lead to the development of a narrow identity whereby the athlete cannot disassociate themselves from their sport (1,7). Together, restricted social interaction during childhood and adolescence, and a self-identity that is strongly related to a single sport can make it difficult athletes to cope with new situations following retirement.
Are we making matters worse?
Having read a number of blogs on the topic of early specialisation in sport, and throughout my time engaging with coaches in my work as a skill acquisition specialist, I get a clear sense that most of us are strong advocates for delayed specialisation. However, there still appears to be an increasing number of athletes who are participating in highly focussed elite performance programs in a single sport from a young age. There are a few reasons that could explain this:
1) The commercialisation of sport and the media glorify sporting champions and glamorise their lifestyles, which entices young athletes to aspire to emulate their heroes (3). The fame and fortune that comes with being an international superstar like Kobe Bryant or Serena Williams can provide extrinsic motivation to young athletes to work harder than ever to try and one day be as successful as their hero.
2) Parents are becoming increasingly committed to providing their children with ample opportunities to excel, wanting to ensure that their child can be the best that they can be. Private coaching, training camps, expensive equipment, and even organising family schedules and holidays around sporting commitments are commonplace in the households of young athletes who show promise or the desire to become a professional athlete (3,4,5).
3) The number of paid coaching positions is increasing at all levels, and staying in these jobs depends upon their team’s success. When job security is on the line coaches will unashamedly encourage their best athletes to commit to their sport year round in order to improve performance, win championships, and get another year’s extension on that coaching contract (3).
There are a whole range of other factors that could inadvertently be encouraging early specialisation in sport even though we know better. In the interest of space and time, I will leave my list at 3, but I would love to hear your views on what else could be contributing to increasing rates of early specialisation. Post a comment below and let me know your thoughts.
The bottom line – early specialisation as a pathway to elite performance?
Considering the risks associated with early specialisation, this pathway to elite performance is recommended primarily for sports in which peak performance is reached prior to or around puberty. As you will see in upcoming posts on the Expert Advantage, early specialisation is not essential for success in most sports, and there are a number of other pathways to elite performance.
As parents, coaches, and sport administrators, we should carefully consider not only the benefits and risks of early specialisation before making decisions regarding young athletes’ involvement in sport, but also how our behaviours may be unintentionally promoting early specialisation.
1. Wiersma, L. D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12(1), 13-22.
2. Baker, J., Cobley, S., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009). What do we know about early sport specialisation? not much! High Ability Studies, 20(1), 77-90.
3. Hill, G. M., Simons, J. (1989). A study of the sport specialization on high school athletics. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 13(1), 1-13.
4. Developing talent in young people (1985). In Bloom B. S. (Ed.), . New York: Ballantine Books.
5. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.
6. Côte, J., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Youth involvement in sport. In P. R. E. Crocker (Ed.), Sport psychology: A Canadian perspective (pp. 266-294). Toronto, Canada: Pearson Prentice Hall
7. Hecimovich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A literature review. Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, 41(4), 32-41.
8. Law, M. P., Cote, J., & Ericsson, K. A. (2007). Characteristics of expert development in rhythmic gymnastics: A retrospective study. International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 82-103.