With such an ever-increasing and enticing incentive for young athletes to make it to the summit of their chosen sport, there is an increasing drive for those that show potential to specialise at a younger age. The benefits of recognising potential and choosing to direct focus towards that one sport are simple; if you train more, you’ll become better.
It’s a simplistic concept but one that has been proven right with past examples of many young prodigies going on to achieve success in an array of sports. However, for every success story, there are those that don’t quite reach the peak, plateau or simply fall out of love with the sport. With a controversial topic such as early specialisation, one of the pitfalls comes in the form of a lack of clear and consistent definition of exactly what constitutes such a label.
A prominent question that many parents of talented youngsters face is deciding whether there is actually a considerable benefit to encouraging their child to participate in numerous sports at the same time rather than specialising and whether doing so may actually serve to benefit them in whatever sport they choose to pursue later on in life.
Increasingly so in western society, sophisticated elite programmes have been adopted for youth players in order to ‘prepare them’ for life as a professional athlete. Whilst the concept is born from the best of intentions, evidence has shown an increasing prevalence of injury amongst youth players as well as individuals simply falling out of love with the sport due to the increased pressure and demands that accompany the environment. With young individuals changing physically, mentally and socially, there can be no guarantee that a specialised performance environment at a junior age group will lead to a continued success throughout their sporting lives.
With such a monopolised world of elite sport, the financial and personal incentives to succeed can have a considerable impact on the choices of young athletes and parents alike. As such, concepts such as the 1,000 hour rule have created a false narrative about success in elite sport being attributable to simply outworking those around you. Naturally, time becomes a considerable commodity in such an environment and the pressure to start serious training at an earlier age becomes more appealing to those looking to fight their way to the very top.
One of the biggest case studies in favour of the model for early specialisation is that of the Williams sisters. Serena and Venus have dominated the world of tennis ever since they first set foot on the big stage after turning professional at the age of just 14. Since then, Venus has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles alongside Serena’s astonishing 23. Together, the two have won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. As children, their father had them on a strict training regime that had Venus undertake her first training sessions at the tender age of 4. Since then, their father meticulously trained the two prodigies with the explicit intention of creating world-leading tennis stars for the self-confessed reasons attempting to win the eccentric levels of prize money associated with major tournaments within the sport.
Naturally, the rise to prominence of the Williams sisters at the turn of the millennium along with the internet and subsequent ease of accessibility for personal coaches and trainers, the monopoly that is elite sport began to branch out, with the fame and riches associated with elite sporting success trickling down to the younger age groups.
In America, the collegiate system places considerable emphasis on elite high school rankings to influence college and subsequent draft prospects, resulting in a significant uptake in early specialisation. As is the way in western culture, with America leading the way, the rest of the west has followed.
The negatives of single-sport discipline
One of the pivotal considerations of specialising early in a particular sport is that, as a child, the athlete’s body has not yet fully grown. High performance behaviours in young athletes has led to high proportions of individuals ‘breaking down’ before reaching their peak potential, thus providing fuel to the notion that there are considerable negative impacts of specialising at a young age. In New Zealand, the country is trying to actively discourage early specialisation whilst encouraging young individuals to be engaged in multiple active sports to contribute to a holistically healthy lifestyle.
In contrast to early specialisation, early diversification incorporates playing a multitude of sports in when young, rather than excluding those outside of the parameters of your chosen sport. As a result, a study by Caruso found an increase in gross motor skills as result of early diversification as well as the opportunity for stimuli to engage the individual beyond the physical demands of a particular sport.
Studies have found that, in most sports, there is no correlation between early specialisation before puberty and achieving elite status. Instead, they have found correlations between higher rates of injury, increased psychological stress and quitting sports at a young age. As a result, there is considerable concern that sports specialisation before adolescence is actually detrimental a young athlete.
The benefits of multi-sports
Whilst the concept of specialising early can lead to an enhanced skill set at a younger age, the physical and mental implications of sports performance, as well as simply growing older, can have a significant impact on that rate of progression that a young athlete experiences.
Participating in an array of sports increases muscle control and coordination as well as encouraging a wider array of movements and physical demands that can subsequently decrease the risk of injury. Aside from the physical components of participating in multiple sports, the psychological and tactical understanding that can be gained from an understanding of an alternative sport can provide a considerable advantage to athletes when transferred to their chosen sport. Invasion sports tend to be a prime example of such a principle with tactical understanding, positional play as well as offensive and defensive tactics constantly overlapping in terms of practical elements as well as terminology.
In short, the more sports a young athlete is exposed to, the more transferrable skills they are able to obtain.