Early Sport Specialisation and Young Athletes

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There are immense benefits for children who are physically active. However, there has been a growing trend emerging known as early sport specialisation. This trend appears to be socially driven by the perception that early sport specialisation will lead to achieving athletic success and peak performance in early adulthood. 

So, is early sports specialistaion the way to go? 

We unpack this misconception to delve into the truth around early sport specialisation and young athletes.

Early Sport Specialisation

What is Early Sport Specialisation

  • Young athletes are defined as an individual proficient in their sport who is 18 years or younger. However, ‘early’ specialisation is referring to specialisation in one sport occurring before the age of 12 
  • Sport specialisation is when an individual is involved in year round, intensive training in one sport solely
  • The degree to which sport specialisation occurs can be established by the following criteria from the Australian Institute of Sport:
    • Does the individual play or train in this one sport for more than 8 months of a given year? 
    • Is this the athletes main single sport? 
    • Has the athlete stopped participating in other sports to focus solely on this sport? 

Does Early Sport Specialisation lead to Athlete Success in Adulthood?

Some degree of sport specialisation can be beneficial in acquiring a skill and developing proficiency. However, there is currently no evidence that suggests that early sport specialisation assists in achieving an elite level of performance in adulthood. 

Whereas, evidence actually suggests maintaining a broader sporting base until at least the age of 12, and then specialising is more likely to result in success for their chosen sport

This is further supported by the notion that participating in a number of sports has extremely positive impacts for long term athletic development. 

A popular concept advocating for the misconception of sport specialisation is the concept that 10,000 hours of practice helps to reach a level of expertise. However this actually came from studies relating to musicians and while it may help in acquiring a skill there has been no evidence to suggest that it results in athletic success in adulthood.

Risks of Early Sport Specialisation:

Early sport specialisation can actually do more harm than good, some of the issues associated with early sport specialisation include:

  • Correlation with a higher risk of overuse injuries
  • Lower overall perception of health both mental and physical 
  • Less fun derived from the sport 
  • Likely to lead to early cessation of sporting activity 
  • Often associated with unrealistic expectations from oneself, or the child’s parents/ coach, which can lead to mental health issues, burn out or low self esteem

Benefits of Participating in a Variety of Sports

If early sport specialisation isn’t recommended, what can be done instead? 

There is a wealth of research that suggests participating in a number of sports is more likely to lead to future athletic success than early sport specialisation. In addition to increased athletic success there are also a number of benefits for the child’s overall health and wellbeing which are derived from early exposure to a variety of sports. 

These benefits include:

  • Allows the individual to develop their own understanding of which sport best fits their interest, capabilities and physique 
  • Promotes longer term enjoyments for the sports and can relieve some of the emotional pressures
  • Enables individuals to acquire a broad range of neuromuscular patterns which can be transferred between sports
  • The development of these neuromuscular patterns can also assist in the prevention of overuse injuries 
  • Leads to a healthy life balance and promotes long term success
  • Have the ability to develop greater overall fitness components including aerobic, strength and flexibility through using a variety of muscles and movement patterns 
  • It can help to reduce recovery time as you are not using the same muscles repeatedly 

A few Guidelines to Consider

These guidelines can assist parents and coaches to gain a greater understanding of what the Australian Institute of Sport suggest in regards to training loads for young athletes:

  • It is important that coaches and parents understand the harms and risks of early sport specialisation 
  • Informal physical activity such as free play should be encouraged especially for children under the age of 12 in order to develop their own motor skills and movement patterns 
  • Try to delay sport specialisation until at least the age of 12 or older if possible as there are immense benefits in doing so
  • It is also important to understand the evidence based training load guidelines based on the individual’s sport to prevent injuries
Early Sport Specialisation

This post was written by Precision Athletica exercise physiologist Jason Oei, is you would like to know more or seek specific guidance from Jason, you can contact him by email here.

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