Podium finishes start with data!

    Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy

    We often hear calls from sport administrators to get youngsters started in a sport early and exclusively because they think that the earlier a child begins practicing a single sport the better he will be later on. In sports lingo this is known as early sport specialization (ESS) and it means pretty much what it sounds like: pick a sport early and stick with it; early training leads to early success. This concept sounds like it should be true but researchers, experienced coaches, and sport medicine practitioners disagree. Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy for most sports.

    Youngsters involved in ESS have higher rates of injury than other young athletes (as much as 50% higher). Most of these injuries result from overuse of muscles or joints. Using the same muscles repeatedly and following the same movement patterns can easily damage immature joints. Many of these injuries become chronic, thus permanently reducing the youngsters ability to participate in sport activities as they get older.

    Young ESS athletes are also subject to earlier burnout. Burnout is a complex response to chronic stress. Young, single-sport athletes can become overwhelmed by the unrelenting pressure to practice and perform turning what once was an enjoyable activity into both a physical and psychological burden. What follows is a cascade of consequences that eventually lead to burnout. In studies of why young athletes drop out of sport, burnout is frequently highlighted as one reason for leaving by athletes who followed the early specialization pathway.

    Research shows that ESS is not essential to sport success nor is there any advantage for those who specialized early over those who didn't. Sport success by late specialization athletes is quite common and more the rule rather than the exception. One reason late specialization athletes seem to be overrepresented on the rosters of national teams, Olympic medal winners, or professional leagues is that few ESS athletes make it to the elite level because they develop chronic injuries when young or experience burnout and leave the sport before anyone knows whether they could have reached the elite level or not.

    Participating in several sports i.e. early sport diversification, can reduce or even eliminate these problems. Multi-sport activity increases the variety of movement patterns and practically eliminates chronic overuse injuries by strengthening all muscles, ligaments, and tendons surrounding joints. A variety of sport activities also helps keep physical activity fun and almost stress free, thus reducing the chance of burnout.

    The consequences of a young athlete leaving sport due to injury or burnout is bad for the athlete and for the sport. No matter how you look at it there is no such thing as a high performance 10-year-old so training a youngster as if he were an adult is misguided. The real rewards for athletic ability don't come until later, if they ever do. The early years of a child's sport engagement should be spent playing, learning, and participating in a variety of activities. This early and diverse training will create robust athletes in whichever sport they finally decide to specialize.

    Early diversification is a hard idea to sell to long-time sport administrators and coaches who believe the ESS pathway is the only way to go. But in the interest of the athletes and development of the sport, early diversification is clearly the best strategy.

    Bill Price (price@sportkid.asia) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.


    Don't miss any content
    Subscribe Now!

    The nine pillars of sport development - 02 May 2021

    Using training age to gauge athlete experience - 18 April 2021

    What would you do differently if there were no such thing as talent? - 04 April 2021

    Athlete development measurements and the lingo that goes with them - 21 March 2021

    Retention and Training Age - 07 March 2021

    Fear of missing out is hurting youth sports - 23 October 2018

    Deliberate practice vs. late specialization - 24 September 2018

    Is talent identification even possible? - 17 September 2018

    Who won the Asian Games? - 10 September 2018

    Re-thinking the mission of Malaysia's sport associations - 03 September 2018

    Using maturity offsets to determine age at peak height velocity - 27 August 2018

    The youth sport talent illusion - 13 August 2018

    The tip of the iceberg - 30 July 2018

    7 things youth sport coaches should know - 25 June 2018

    Who is responsible for athlete performance - 18 June 2018

    Creating a culture of achievement in sport - 05 June 2018

    Sport development in the headlines (sort of) - 28 May 2018

    Who won the Commonwealth Games? - 23 April 2018

    Kaizen: Improving sport administration will improve performance - 02 April 2018

    What can Malaysia learn from Norway about sport development? - 05 March 2018

    Dealing with more than one email address and other communication ideas - 26 February 2018

    What can you do to work more efficiently? - 19 February 2018

    LTAD: Training to compete - 22 January 2018

    Sport clubs are the lifeblood of national sport development - 15 January 2018

    Take a chance! - 18 December 2017

    How we calculate age in youth sports can have benefits and consequences - 11 December 2017

    Can bio-banding help reduce the relative age effect in sport? - 04 December 2017

    Understanding the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in the athlete development process - 20 November 2017

    Great expectations: Expect more, get more! - 14 November 2017

    Why process is more important than outcome in a learning environment - 25 September 2017

    Sport associations are embracing physical literacy training - 18 September 2017

    Creating a true sport development system in Malaysia - 11 September 2017

    Who won the SEA Games? - 04 September 2017

    KL2017: Reporting individual sport results deserved better planning - 29 August 2017

    Can we please forget about ways to identify talent and just work on getting more athletes? - 07 August 2017

    Using the team selection process to boost motivation and increase athlete participation - 24 July 2017

    LTAD: The Train to Train stage - 10 July 2017

    LTAD: The Learn-to-Train stage - 26 June 2017

    Athletic training for youngsters - 12 June 2017

    Visualization and imagery in sports - 05 June 2017

    Young, single-sport athletes suffer more injuries and do not reach their full potential - 29 May 2017

    Transformational vs. transactional coaching - 23 May 2017

    Will they come back tomorrow? - 08 May 2017

    Advice to parents of young athletes - 01 May 2017

    Is VIP leadership of sport associations a good idea? - 22 March 2017

    What happens after an athlete's initial introduction to sport? - 27 February 2017

    "Where do athletes come from?" - 16 January 2017

    Understanding sport talent pathways - 09 January 2017

    Make 2017 the year of the growth mindset - 02 January 2017

    Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices - 12 December 2016

    Developing sport from the ground up - 06 December 2016

    Pay for what you want - 21 November 2016

    The 10,000 hour rule: "Not for the faint of heart nor for the impatient" - 14 November 2016

    Parent involvement in their child's sport participation sometimes backfires - 07 November 2016

    How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016

    A foreign coach is not always the answer - 17 October 2016

    Tips on creating an effective coaching environment - 10 October 2016

    Peak height velocity and aerobic development - 26 September 2016

    Early sport specialization is still not a good idea - 19 September 2016

    What kind of data do we need to develop sports? - 13 September 2016

    The attrition and transformation models of sport development - 05 September 2016

    Solve for <x> - 29 August 2016

    Artificial elimination of athletes from training and competition hinders sport development in Malaysia - 15 August 2016

    Time is the most important factor in talent development - 01 August 2016

    What if opportunity never knocks? - 13 June 2016

    The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life - 06 June 2016

    Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy - 30 May 2016

    What does a declining population mean for sport? - 2 February 2016

    Coaching 'flow' - 11 November 2015

    The coach's role in creating a deliberate practice environment - 02 November 2015

    When should athletes specialize in a single sport? - 11 September 2015

    The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development - 1 September 2015

    Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule - 10 August 2015

    The power of 'not yet' - 20 July 2015

    Let's stop trying to identify sport talent and start developing it - 22 June 2015