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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.