Are kids specialising in sport too early? Working in a physiotherapy clinic in Gungahlin, Canberra means that I treat a lot of children and adolescents. Gungahlin is an excellent family-orientated part of town, and I enjoy getting to know a lot of families and have seen many children grow and develop through the years.
Canberra’s population is generally very active, and this can be seen in the number of sports and activities that are available for children and adolescents to participate in throughout the year.
It has to be said however, that more and more injuries I see in children and adolescents are related to overuse and extended periods of time spent competing in one sport only. Kids specialising in sport on a broader level (and in the literature) is referred to as Early Sports Specialisation.
What is Early Sports Specialisation?
In research, early specialisation is defined as a child or adolescent participating in a single sport, with a deliberate focus on training and development in one sport only. To communicate this more effectively, early specialisation may be described as:
- Choosing to participate in one sport.
- Participating in this sport for greater than 8 months per-year and;
- Quitting other sports to focus on just the one.
Early or late can describe kids specialising at different ages, such as specialising at a relatively young vs later in adolescence/early adulthood. There is also the inclusion of early diversification of multiple sports for those who specialise later.
Why Are Kids Specialising in Sport Earlier ?
Sometimes general time and life constraints only allow participation in one activity. More often than not however, a child may choose to participate in one sport only.
Pressure to succeed in a sport comes from many avenues:
- internal (self-pressure)
- sporting clubs
- society in general
Increasing the chance of success in sport if thought to be brought about by maximising athletic skill in one area. Skill gain takes times, repetition, and practice. The thought process could be: More time practising = greater skill gain. Greater skill gain = greater success at the sport.
Greater success in the sport could result in social advantages, financial advantages and even increased educational opportunities.
The Truths About Kids Specialising in Sport
Summary from “Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes”
- Trying to identify young athletes who are genuinely talented is very difficult and unrealistic
- Children show significant differences and changes in their physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive domains from childhood to young adulthood
- The earlier a young athlete is identified as having talent, the more uncertain is the prediction of future success
- Motivation to participate and endure the highs and lows is more indicative of a promising future than skill or sport readiness at an early age
- Studies that have looked at organised sports programs show athletic advantages stemming from diversification not specialisation
- Unfortunately – reality shows us that 98-99% of young athletes will never reach the highest level in sport
It seems that a good sport and educational system, providing opportunities for all and the necessary freedom to choose our own way at the right time, continues to be the best talent-identification model of all.
The Risks (Costs) of Kids Specialising in Sport at an Early Age:
In regards to injury development:
While early sport specialisation can help with skill development, it can also be harmful in developing overall athleticism. An increased amount of volume of one specific movement while the body is growing can lead to imbalanced development and a higher chance of overuse injury.
Athletes that play one sport constantly put their bodies under unique stress specific to that sport. Sports that involve a lot of repetitive tasks, especially single-side tasks like throwing or swinging, tend to result in muscular and even sometimes skeletal imbalances.
Outside of the physiotherapy/rehabilitation spectrum, early specialisation can also:
- see athletes fail to pick up transferable skills: playing in many activities/pursuits results in a greater range of skill development
- lead to decreased enjoyment and burnout
- cause disappointment and discouragement – may experience a sense of failure if goals are not met after such heavy investment in one area.
- lead to social isolation – can lead to miss/ed social opportunities that could be experienced with sport/activity diversity. There may be negative peer interaction and lack of co-operation skills.
- Restriction in exposure to a variety of sports can lead to the young athlete not experiencing a sport that he or she may truly enjoy, excel at playing, or want to play in throughout his or her adult life.
In physically active girls and women, early sport specialisation has been identified as a major contributor to a medical condition known as the female athlete triad (also referred to as RED-S). Josie has given some good information about RED-S here.
Other Positives to Diversifying Children’s Activities:
I read a good little blog article which summarised the benefits of deliberate play (not structured or one sport) well. The benefits of deliberate play (not repetitive skill-based practice) are well documented:
1. More creative and skilful play
2. The ability to use transferable skills (running, jumping, agility) in a diverse range of scenarios.
3. A broader exposure to differing competitive environments – some sports require a slow pace, others fast reactive bursts, others both. Building the focus to deal with all these scenarios builds resilience across sports.
4. Free play = more play: playing for enjoyment encourages trying more things, not only enhancing skills, but making it more likely to discover the sport (or activity) that they enjoy the most.
5. An Ohio University study found that early specialisation not only increased burnout in the youth athletes’ sport of choice but reduced their participation even as adults. With more variety in play, there is less chance of burnout.
General Guidance for Childhood Sports Participation:
The Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness gave good guidance for what we as practitioners should be advising for those specialising early (or considering):
The primary focus of sports for young athletes should be to have fun and learn lifelong physical activity skills.
Participating in multiple sports, at least until puberty, decreases the chances of injuries, stress, and burnout in young athletes.
For most sports, specialising in a sport later (ie, late adolescence) may lead to a higher chance of the young athlete achieving their goals.
Early diversification and later specialisation provides for a greater chance of lifetime sports involvement, lifetime physical fitness, and possibly elite participation.
If a young athlete has decided to specialise in a single sport, discussing his or her goals to determine whether they are appropriate and realistic is important. This discussion may involve helping the young athlete set apart these goals from those of the parents and/or coaches.
It is important for parents to closely monitor the training and coaching environment of “elite” youth sports programs and be aware of best practices for their children’s sports.
Having at least a total of 3 months off throughout the year, in 1 month breaks , from their particular sport of interest will allow for athletes’ physical and psych recovery. Young athletes can still remain active in other activities to meet physical activity guidelines during the time off.
Young athletes having at least 1 to 2 days off per week from their particular sport of interest can decrease the chance for injuries. Have a look at my previous article on overtraining for more info.
Closely monitoring young athletes who push training for physical and psych growth and maturation as well as nutritional status is an important parameter for health and well-being.
Proposed activity split to diversify kids sport
Two youth sports researchers, Cote and Fraser-Thomas also came up with this proposal:
- Prior to the age of 12: 80% of time should be spent in activities other than the chosen sport
- Between 13-15: a 50/50 split between a chosen sport and other athletic activities.
- Age 16+: when specialisation becomes more important, 20% of active training time should still be in a non-specialised sport or deliberate play.
So, when is it appropriate (and safe) to specialise in Sport?
Current evidence suggests that delaying sport specialisation for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence, approx. 15 or 16 years of age) will minimise the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success.
Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3871410/