The Question of Sport Specialization
Posted by Dean Holden at February 4th, 2015
by Richard Way, 3 June 2013
The question of sport specialization—when to begin and how best to approach it—has been a topic of much debate for years, and one that CS4L-LTAD has discussed at length. Though some have argued that early specialization in a sport is the only way to become an elite athlete, more and more research shows that later specialization in a sport (aside from artistic and acrobatic sports) better equips athletes to succeed at the highest levels. But it isn’t just late specialization that gives elite athletes the edge—it’s the way in which they train once they begin specializing.
In “Late Specialization: The key to success in centimeters, grams or seconds (cgs) sports,” Moesch, Elbe, Hauge and Wikman (2011) compared the specialization and training patterns of elite athletes with those of near-elite athletes. While they found that late specialization is more likely to lead to success than early specialization, their findings showed that training patterns were the true indicator as to eventual elite versus near-elite status. Interestingly, elite and near-elite athletes ranked the same in involvement in other sports, suggesting that elite athletes didn’t gain an edge over their near-elite counterparts through multi-sport involvement alone.
When looking at the practice hours performed by the two samples in the main sport, near-elite athletes accumulated significantly more by age nine, and continued to do so through adolescence until age 15. By age 18, both elites and near-elites had accumulated roughly the same number of practice hours in the main sport. The elite athletes began to amass more practice hours after this point, and had reached a substantially higher total than their near-elite peers by age 21. While the near-elite athletes had performed more specific-sport practice at an earlier age, their training increase didn’t develop intensively beyond age 18, whereas the elites’ training did.
Practice hours aside, the two samples also experienced a different timeline in terms of the significant moments in their careers. While both groups took important steps within their careers (when they started the sport, when they took part in their first competition, when they had their first national team involvement), elite athletes reached these benchmarks at a much older age. Also, the elite athletes spent less time on junior national teams than the near-elites, but spent more time on senior national teams.
So, while multi-sport involvement at an early age doesn’t alone guarantee elite status within sport, it is key for the development of physical literacy. Both the elites and the near-elites had this. But the true indicator of whether an athlete will reach the elite level or the near-elite level appears to be in the training regimen. Practice hours in the sport of choice should not increase dramatically until the athlete is ready to specialize, and that shouldn’t be until later in the teens for late-specialization sports. Targeting the appropriate period to increase practice time and then increasing practice time accordingly looks like the surest bet to becoming elite.
Richard Way is the Senior Leader of the Canadian Sport for Life movement and a member of the Leadership Team. He has extensive leadership experience in the Canadian sport community including working with countless organizations on strategic planning and management functions, the Director of Sport for Vancouver’s successful 2010 Bid Corporation and twelve years with the Government of BC primarily in coaching education and training. A two-sport athlete, Richard represented Canada as a Luge athlete and coach as well as being an All-Canada-West soccer player with the University of Calgary. He now coaches his children at the community sport level.