Deliberate practice vs. late specialization

Sport development gurus familiar with the growing mountain of research surrounding athletic expertise have a hard time reconciling the time necessary to accumulate thousands of hours of deliberate practice with the negative effects of specializing in a single sport at too early an age. The literature largely ignores this conflict but luckily the big brains at USSA Malaysia have considered this and we think we have a solution that resolves this problem.

The so-called 10,000 hour rule is a convenient metaphor that illustrates how developing talent takes a lot of time. Anyone who interprets it literally as a rule is missing the point. Although some do believe that its literal implementation, or close to it, is necessary to reach an elite level of performance.

Early specialization in a single sport has been linked to premature withdrawal from the sport, early burnout, poor development of physical literacy, and long-term overuse injuries, which is why most sport practitioners advise against it.

However, the 10,000 hour rule and the elements involved in deliberate practice seem to create a trap; if an athlete does not specialize early then others who do will have an advantage, and without early specialization the young athlete cannot achieve enough practice hours. Here's the relevant quote from that article:

A youth sport coach should also encourage participation in a number of activities, thus taking advantage of cross-domain benefits while still performing deliberate practice. The coach should recognize that cross-domain participation is essential if problems associated with early single-sport specialization such as overuse injuries and burnout are to be avoided.

Part of the solution is to redefine deliberate practice so that cross-domain activities, i.e. other sports, are included. At the youth level this makes sense because specializing early in only one activity limits the development of physical literacy and the depth of performance skills the athlete is able to call on later.

Typically we refer to this as athleticism. Early specialization can actually reduce the level of athleticism since the skills an athlete learns and practices are limited to only one sport.

Everyone has seen the occasional report of a football coach having his players take ballet lessons and it is reported as if there's nothing more amusing than a 150 kg linebacker prancing around a dance floor. But there's a good reason why the coach thinks this is valuable; dance in all its forms broadens one's range of movement skills especially those related to dynamic balance.

Developing this kind of movement skill at later ages though is difficult, it's similar to learning a new language later in life. Imagine the depth of skill those players would have if they participated in dance, gymnastics, or almost any number of other activities as youngsters.

An athlete's style and grace comes not only from long hours of practice but also participating in a number of different kinds of activities. Becoming physically literate adds to the quality of later athletic performance, even though it requires youngsters to practice activities other than what they think is their 'main' sport.

The hype surrounding 10,000 hours of practice does lead to the feeling that there is not enough time to develop fully without early specialization. But focusing exclusively on accumulating practice in a specific skill set ignores how children grow and mature, and how different kinds of stimuli at different times are needed to fully develop physical skills.

Talent development is a complicated process and hours of deliberate practice (nobody really knows how many) is only a component, not the whole story.