If you can measure it, you can improve it!

    Early sport specialization is still not a good idea

    Having athletes specialize early in a single sport so that they might gain an advantage over their later-starting peers is a persistent sports myth. The belief is that specializing early will produce better athletes later. But there is no evidence that starting early has the beneficial effect many think. Indeed there are good arguments for having youngsters involved in many sports while they are young not just one. Reducing overuse injuries, avoiding burnout, and acquiring a well rounded list of athletic skills are some of the many benefits of a diverse youth sport experience.

    The reason this idea persists is because it's one of those things that sounds like it should be right. Unless you're involved in sport development and are familiar with the research and the lingo you're unlikely to question the early specialization mindset because it just sounds right. Because of this it remains one of the most popular developmental myths in sport today.

    All elite athletes eventually specialize in one sport. The question is when should they do this? Current research suggests that the best path to elite athlete development is one that begins with early diversification i.e. participating in many different sports or physical activities and gradually reducing the number of activities as athletes age and as they begin to excel in one.

    The early diversification/late specialization pathway gives athletes a robust foundation of physical activity that can boost performance later as they begin to specialize. Currently this is what experts believe is the most advantageous method to achieve high performance later on. Participating in many activities also reduces the chance of overuse injuries that are becoming more common in youth sports.

    Early diversification also allows youngsters to discover activities they are truly good at. Participating in a smorgasbord of sport programs in the early development years helps them find the ones they not only like but can eventually excel at. Early specialization can't do this.

    Do any sports require early specialization?

    There are some sports where high performance traditionally occurs at earlier ages, thus specializing early in those activities might be required. Sports like gymnastics (especially for women), figure skating, diving, or any activity where the skill itself is the performance probably require early specialization. But the list of sports that fall into this category is small.

    One way to tell if a sport requires early specialization is to look at the ages of elite level performers. Top level women gymnasts are young. They are almost always in their teenage years when they produce their best performances. In other sports elite performers are older indicating that it is probably a late specialization sport.

    Sports that are judged on the basis of skill performance are also early specialization activities and again gymnastics, figure skating, and diving fall into this category.

    Most sports are late specialization activities

    For the majority of sports though the late specialization path is the best strategy for high performance development. Not only will it reduce the number of overuse injuries in young athletes it will help to avoid the psychological burnout that can occur in youngsters who participate in the same activity all the time. Burnout is a multifaceted psycho-physical phenomenon. Although it takes many forms athletes who suffer from burnout can best be described as being tired of the activity. They lack the enthusiasm and passion for the sport that once drove their involvement.

    Burnout is not a specific result of early specialization but when it occurs in athletes who followed the early specialization pathway it is usually before those athletes have reached their peak performance years. This could mean that these athletes end up quitting the sport before they ever really know how good they might have been.

    So with good developmental principles in mind it is best to encourage youngsters to sample many sport activities while young. This is only part of the picture though. In order for athletes to be able to sample a number of sports there have to be opportunities for them to do so, which brings us back to creating opportunities for youngsters to participate in sports in the first place.


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

    DON'T FORGET TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE SPORTKID NEWSLETTER

    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