Early specialisation is a major trend in child and adolescent sports (Hecimowich, 2004), but is this approach to athletic development research-driven and supported in both practice and theory?
Some of the scientific basis behind early specialisation might derive from the theory of deliberate practice, put forth by Eriksson, Krampe & Tech-Römer (1993) providing evidence that development into elite performance in various contexts takes 10.000 hrs of deliberate practice.
Are we misusing this theoretical framework to support our notion about elite-development, and does evidence tell us to specialise at an early age?
There has been put forward a developmental framework by Cotè and Fraser-Thomas (2007) taking the view that sport diversification, or sampling, might be a better way of developing both elite athletes and keeping more children/adolescents involved in sports. A study trying to identify how early specialisation or sampling throughout childhood and adolescent would affect end-performance, yielded a significant association between number of sports participated in at ages 11-15 and the standard of competition at the age of 18 (Bridge & Toms, 2012). In addition individuals competing in more than three sports also were more likely to be competing at the national level, compared to athletes just participating in one sport (Bridge & Toms, 2012).
A study on elite footballers from Germany found significant differences from the non-elite population in amount of time spent in non-organised leisure football in childhood, more engagement in other sports, later specialisation, and more organised football-practice from above the age of 22 years (Hornig, Aust & Güllich, 2014).
When interviewing a Norwegian elite-athlete population Gilberg and Breivik (1998) indicates a wider use of non-organised training situations in adolescent, stronger multisport-participation and later specialisation compared to a control-group that did not turn into elite-athletes.
An interesting question comes to mind when reading these findings, why do we then tend to force specialisation and how is it that the pathway to elite sports comes via multi-sports?
Cotè, Lidor and Hackford (2009) would argue that the role of deliberate play and broad sampling as a tool for developing into the elite level have several positive sides to it. Developing into elite-level sports is a long and challenging process, that often occur after maturation where peak performance usually is evident between 20-30 years of age (Coté, Lidor & Hackford, 2009). Multi-sport engagement have positive impact on long-term involvement in sports and foster a range of contexts that favourable affects on youth development.
The perhaps most interesting notion is that a large volume of deliberate play, might be one of crucial factors for kids and adolescents turning from sport-participation into choosing elite-sport pathway (Coté, Lidor & Hackford, 2009). An interesting finding from Eriksson et al`s study (1993)was that the performers that made it into elite performance, practice/play in solitude and a life long perspective on their participation in the activity was a significant factor differing them from the sub-elites. The more self-driven kids tend to become in their own developmental processes, the more intrinsically motivated they get and are easier motivated by externally controlled training contexts (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Creating spaces for deliberate play also links up closely with the creation of an mastery-oriented developmental climate (Treasure, 2001), which also provides support for intrinsic motivation and resiliency in sport participation and effort.
Deliberate play during the sampling years in adolescent provides development both physiological, motor and cognitive skills that might transfer well into their eventually chosen elite-sport (Cotè, Lidor & Hackford, 2009).
These are several points suggesting that early specialisation might not be the best idea in developing both elite athletes, but also developing good environments for all kids/adolescents. Perhaps we need to rethink our approach to elite development pathways and start focusing on how to apply multi-sport programs in addition to providing sport-specific programs in order to best prepare our future elite athletes? Deliberate practice theory might be right in the amount of training required to excel into elite sports, but this could be achieved by developing both sport-specific skills and transferable mental, social, physical and technical/tactical skills via participation in other sports. It is also potentially easier to reach a higher amount of hours (ref 10.000 hrs) when variation in training is provided.
It might be intuitive to specialise early and focus on the sport-specific skills required in any chosen sport, but the pathway to elite performance is much more complicated and should not rely only on this approach. On the basis of these theoretical considerations sport-clubs and coaches/managers should start restructuring developmental programs to fit the pathway elite athletes actually seems to follow.
Bridge, M.W., & Toms, M.R. (2012). The specialising or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK. Journal of Sport Science, 1, 87-96.
Côté, J. & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2007). Youth involvement in sport. In P. Crocker (Ed.). Sport psychology: A Canadian perspective, (pp. 270-298). Toronto: Pearson.
Cotè, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: to sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Vol 7:2, s.7-17
Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., & Tech-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406
Gilberg, R. & Breivik, G. (1998). "Hvorfor ble de beste best?" Olympiatoppen, Norges Idrettshøgskole. s. 100
Hecimowich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A litteature review. Journal of American Chiropractic Association, 41, 32-41
Hornig, M., Aust, F., & Güllich, A. (2014). Practice and play in the development of German top-level professional football players. European Journal of Sport Science, 2, 1-10
Treasure, D.C. (2001). Enhancing young people`s motivation in youth sport: An achievement goal approach. In G.C. Roberts (Ed.), Advances in motivation in sport and exercise (pp. 263-319). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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About Frank Heggebo
Graduated MSc in Sport Psychology and Coaching from the Norwegian School of Sport Science. Specialyzing in motivation, overtraining and athlete burnout. Academic and working experience is mainly focused around talent development and psychological qualities needed to excel into elite performance. Currently work as a head coach in cross-country skiing national team. Also provide mental training consultantancy for athletes and teams. Teaching sports in an upper secondary school. Sports director at Ølen Sportsclub.