Research into Practice 2: The dangers of early specialisation in sport

Although an early specialization trajectory may offer positive experiences and outcomes, it relies on a talent selection process in childhood that may be detrimental to continued sport participation.” (Leisha Strachan, Jean Côté and Janice Deakin)

Opinions about the benefits and necessity of early specialisation vary considerably. Some sports so-called early specialisation sports, like gymnastics, ice skating and swimming place great emphasis on young players limiting their participation to one or a small number of activities. Other models caution against the dangers of introducing too much too soon, and stress the value of novices experiencing a wide range of sports before specialising at a later stage.

What does Research Tell Us?

The strongest evidence in favour of early specialisation comes from research into the effects of practice and training (see also the section on practice). Scientists found that many expert performers in sport (and other areas) began their training at an early age and invested considerable time and energy from the beginning in their specialist sport. Some have speculated that early specialisation is important because if it did not begin early enough, late starters would risk being unable to catch up to those with a head start.

Critics of this approach have suggested that there are also serious negative consequences. For example, it has been suggested that early specialisation can result in impaired overall development in childhood, including restricted movement development and the stifling of psychological and social skills. Others have argued that early specialisation occurs at a time when developing bodies are vulnerable to over-use injuries. Perhaps most worrying of all, serious training in a single sport can reduce the fun and enjoyment aspects that are well-established to be vitally important for long-term participation. In other words, there is a real danger that early specialisers become early drop-outs.

An increasing number of studies have questioned the necessity of early specialisation. It has been found that in many sports elite players did not focus on that activity from an early age. On the contrary, these players ‘sampled’ a range of sports before progressively narrowing down the number of activities. Unlike early specialisers, these players’ experiences of early sports were generally play-like, inherently enjoyable and not serious. Up to half of pre-elite athletes reach an elite level in a different sport; so even in the case of elite sport it seems wise to develop a broad range of skills first.

Some studies have found that later specialisers are not placed at a disadvantage to early specialisers, although there is a great deal of variation between different sports.

Research into both early and late specialisation in sport reveals one constant theme: coaches and the wider social support network (including families and friends) are vitally important in the quality of players’ experiences of sport. Skilled coaches can mitigate against the potential stresses and strains of sport (which are especially evident among early specialisers) though an awareness of the changes affecting growing and developing bodies, and through encouraging close friendships and family support. An ethical and balanced approach seems most likely to bring about ultimate success.

What does it mean for coaching?

1. Coaches need to be sensitive to the potential risks of early specialisation in sport.

2. In many cases sampling a broad range of sports is valuable, and lays a solid foundation for later participation.

3. Where early specialisation is considered necessary, coaches need to acknowledge the physical, psychological and social stresses of serious training in childhood, and develop strategies to ensure healthy, overall development.

4. Coach educators need to ensure that all coaches of children are aware of the physical, psychological and social aspects of early training in sport, and that they are able to implement strategies that mitigate any potential harm.

Useful source of further information

Wiersma, L. D. (2000) Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: perspectives and

recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12, pp. 13–22.

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