Early Sports Specialisation v Diversification for Young Athletes

Early Sports Specialisation v Diversification for Young Athletes

Many parents believe that early sports specialisation (between 6-12 years old) will provide the best chance for their young athlete to reach top level elite competition. However, there is evidence to highlight key risks involved in this strategy and that multisport participation or “early sampling” leads to greater sporting benefits.

Key points to note

• Early sports specialisation before the age of 13 years can lead to short term success and confidence building.
• However, this must weighed up with the many risks associated such as increased injury, social isolation, burnout and pressure leading to early drop out.
• The peak age of performance for most sports (except gymnastics and ice skating) is early 20’s to late 30’s, which means sports specialisation is not necessary till teenage years at the earliest to reach elite levels.
• Early sporting diversification provides young athletes with valuable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial environments and promotes motivation. Evidence shows that elite athletes begin sports specialisation later than non or near elite athletes.
• Early diversification of sports promotes continued sports participation and elite level performance over early specialisation.

What is early sports specialisation?

Early sports specialisation refers to intense training in one sport only whilst excluding all others for athletes aged 6-12 years old.

What is the peak performance age in sport?

For most sports, the average peak performance is reached from early 20’s to late 30’s. Endurance sports are correlated with older athletes.
• Track and field athletes – 23-28 years old depending on the event. 1
• Swimming – 20 years 2 – 23 years 3
• Olympic distance triathlon – 26-27 years 4
• Basketball – 27 years 5
• Baseball – 29 years 6
• Golf – 31 years 7
• Ironman triathlon – 32-33 years 8
• Ultra distance cycling – 39 years 9

The exceptions include gymnastics and ice skating where peak performance is reached earlier for female athletes.

• Gymnastics (female) – 15-17 Years 10
– Generally, female gymnasts reach their peak power-to-weight ratio prior to puberty and are ready for elite international competition at the minimum age requirement of 16 years old. 11
• Ice Skating (female) – Slightly under 17 years 12

Why is peak sporting age relevant?

• There is a general view that 10 years of daily and deliberate training or practice in something is required to achieve the maximum level of human performance. 13
• However, in a study of high-performance Australian athletes in 2004, it was determined that this 10-year rule does not apply to sports. In this study of 459 athletes across 34 different sports, 69% of novice athletes develop into senior elite athletes in less than 10 years, with the average period of 7.5 years. In addition, 28% of senior national athletes reached elite status within just four years of beginning their sport.14
• So counting back 7.5 years from the peak sporting age would mean that there may be little additional benefit from early sports specialisation before teenage years (other than for the exceptions of gymnastics and ice skating for female athletes).

Evidence shows elite athletes start sports specialisation later than non or near elites

• A study of male and female Russian swimmers showed that those who specialised in swimming before 11 years old spent less time on the National team and retired earlier than those who specialised later.15
• In a study of tennis players, elite players began intense training and specialisation later (13-15 years old) than non-elite players (11 years). 16
• In a study of over 1500 German Olympic athletes:17
– Elite athletes began intensive training in their sport later than near-elite athletes (11.4 v 10.2 years old).
– Elite athletes began competition in their sport later than near-elites (13.1 v 12.0 years old).
– More elites participated in more than one sport from age 11 years than near-elites (64% vs 50%).
• The exception to this rule, as noted previously, is in sports where peak performance is early. Studies of gymnasts 18 and figure skaters 19 have shown that early specialisation is a strong predictor of elite performance in these sports.

Benefits and Risks of early sports specialisation

Benefits

• Potential for success in the younger years. Early sports specialisation will assist in the early development of skills and performance in the short term and therefore your young athlete may perform well competitively during these younger years.
• This can also be beneficial to a young athlete in terms of confidence and self-esteem over this period.

Risks

Few athletes who specialise in their sport at an early age, however, make it to elite levels as significantly, most drop out along the way. Key issues associated with early sports specialisation include 20 :
• Increased chance of injury through overuse. 21
• Social isolation. Training commitments mean that many young athletes have limited social opportunities, particularly if home schooled22 .
• Burnout 23
• Increased drop out rate due to loss of enjoyment in the sport resulting from too much pressure 24 .
• Reduced likelihood of sports participation as an adult 25 .

Benefits of sports diversification in early years

Playing a variety sports in the early years promotes longevity in sports participation and elite level performance over early sports specialisation.
• Sports diversification has a positive impact on socialisation skills, positive peer relationships, leadership skills, and overall emotional well-being.26 27 28
• High amounts of deliberate play in the early years builds a solid foundation of self-motivation for enjoyment and self-interest, which will lead to more self-determination and commitment in their future participation in sport.29
• More deliberate play during the sampling years establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences that children can ultimately bring to their principal sport of interest. 30
• Young athletes who experienced a great number of activities in their early years (0-12 years) were able to undertake fewer sports specific practice to achieve expertise. This is due to the transfer of pattern recall skills between sports, which is most developed in the early stages of involvement.31
• Early diversification followed by specialisation may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success.32

Points to consider

• Free play and sports diversification in early childhood years are beneficial to developing not only a wide variety of sporting skills but also the normal social and emotional development a child needs.
• If you are considering a sports specialisation, consider the peak age in your particular sport and event if applicable, and note also that gender may make some difference to peak age.
• It is often easy to get carried away with talented young athletes but try to weigh up the risks of injury and burnout involved in early sports specialisation.
• Consider also that the path to elite status is not just based on talent but on the ongoing self-motivation of the athlete and their continuing love for the sport.

References:

Show 32 footnotes

  1. Stephen Hollings et al September 25, 2014, Age at Peak Performance of Successful Track & Field Athletes
    DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1260/1747-9541.9.4.651
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    45(10):1431-41. Sports Med.doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0354-3
  3. Vince Raleigh National Youth Coach 2011 Long term development in Swimming, Swimming Australia
  4. Knechtle et al. SpringerPlus 2014, 3:538 The best triathletes are older in longer race distances – a comparison between Olympic, Half-Ironman, and Ironman distance triathlon
  5. Neil Paine July 14, 2009, Win Shares and Aging http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=2953
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  8. Michael Stiefel et al Published online 2013 Sep 1. The age of peak performance in Ironman triathlon: a cross-sectional and longitudinal data analysis doi: 10.1186/2046-7648-2-27 PMCID: PMC3766705
  9. Allen SV, Hopkins WG 2015 Oct Age of Peak Competitive Performance of Elite Athletes: A Systematic Review.
    45(10):1431-41. Sports Med.doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0354-3
  10. Dieter Hackfort, Gershon Tenenbaum Essential Processes for Attaining Peak Performance
  11. http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/sports/gymnastics
    AIS Sports Nutrition, last updated October 2013. © Australian Sports Commission.
  12. Lori F. Cummins Figure Skating: A Different Kind of Youth Sport University of Notre Dame
  13. Ericsson KA1, Lehmann AC Annu Expert and exceptional performance: evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints. Rev Psychol. 1996;47:273-305.
  14. Oldenziel KE, Gagne F, Gulbin J. Factors affecting the rate of athlete development from novice to senior elite: how applicable is the 10-year rule? Paper presented at: 2004 Pre-Olympic Congress: Sports Science Through the Ages; August 2004; Thessaloniki, Greece
  15. Barynina II, Vaitsekhovskii SM. The aftermath of early sports specialization for highly qualified swimmers.Fitness Sports Rev Int. 1992;27:132-133
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  17. Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite sports system. Eur J Sport Soc. 2006;3:85-108
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  19. Starkes JL, Deakin J, Allard F, Hodges NJ, Hayes A. Deliberate practice in sports: what is it anyway? In: Ericsson KA, editor. , ed. The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Ports, and Games. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; 1996:81-106
  20. Malina, Robert M. Early Sport Specialization: Roots, Effectiveness, Risks, Current Sports Medicine Reports
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  21. Jayanthi, N. (December, 2012). Injury risks of sports specialization and training in junior tennis players: A clinical study. Paper presented at the Society for Tennis and Medicine Science North American Regional Conference, Atlanta, GA.
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  28. Fredricks, J. A., & Eccles, J. S. (2006). Extracurricular involvement and adolescent adjustment: Impact of duration, number of activities, and breadth of participation. Applied Developmental Science, 10, 132-146.
  29. ISSP Position Stand: To Sample or to Specialize? Seven Postulates about Youth Sport Activities that Lead to Continued Participation and Elite Performance Jean Côté1 , Ronnie Lidor2, Dieter Hackfort3
  30. ISSP Position Stand: To Sample or to Specialize? Seven Postulates about Youth Sport Activities that Lead to Continued Participation and Elite Performance Jean Côté1 , Ronnie Lidor2, Dieter Hackfort3
  31. Neeru Jayanthi, MD et al. 2013 May Sports Specialization in Young Athletes, Sports Health.; 5(3): 251–257 doi: 10.1177/1941738112464626
  32. Neeru Jayanthi, MD et al. 2013 May Sports Specialization in Young Athletes, Sports Health.; 5(3): 251–257 doi: 10.1177/1941738112464626

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