How Sport Specialization Can Actually Limit Athlete Potential

Provide Young Athletes With an All-Round, Balanced Development

This is an updated version of an article written some years ago (as indicated by some of the references) but the information presented remains current. Whilst the article deals with multi-event development of young athletes within the sport of track & field, the same principles can be applied to the wider argument for multi-sport rather than single-sport participation for children.

For a long time, many people have been under the impression that the best way to develop an athlete to be a top level competitor is to train that athlete for a particular event (specialize) from a very early age.

This narrow approach can achieve quick results however can also lead to the neglect of a good training base. It is like trying to build a high-rise building on a poor foundation!

Early specialization can lead to the following problems:

  • A narrow development of muscles and systems
  • Overtraining and overuse injuries
  • Boredom and burnout
  • Training the athlete for the wrong event! (i.e. Training the athlete in an event that will not suit his/her eventual body type).

Any one or a combination of these things can cause a person to drop out of the sport early, meaning that they may never find out how talented he or she may have become.

Agreement that children should avoid early specialization and work on developing a wide range of skills is common across many commentators on the topic. In their book Conditioning Young Athletes Tudor Bompa & Michael Carrera are adamant that it is . . . “important for young children to develop a variety of fundamental skills to help them become good general athletes before they start training in a specific sport.” and that multilateral development “. . . is one of the most important training principles of children and youth.” (P. 5)

In addition, the Coaching Association of Canada (1997) warns that: “Early specialization limits a child’s potential in all sports, including the one in which he or she is currently specializing”. The argument is that by limiting a young athlete’s involvement to the narrow demands of one sport or event may limit the development of general endurance, flexibility, coordination, balance, agility, strength, speed and power – all of which are associated with later high performance in sport.

Rushall (1998) seems to agree with this view: “Up to the age of 8, children should enjoy a variety of stimulating activities to develop a general base of physical and movement aptitudes. From then on, more detailed instruction in particular skills can be entertained but against a background of general stimulation. It has been shown that, in general, children who specialize early will lack the ‘background’ development of capacities for flexible responses in the later years, and higher performance categories, of participation.” (P.27)

Rushall states that concentrating on acquiring specialized sports skills at too early an age has more disadvantages than advantages: “Early specialization is by definition achieved at the expense of developing a broader base of fundamental movement skills such as balance, agility and coordination, and usually occurs at the expense of learning other sports.”

Rushall concludes by saying: “Early specialization, in a sense, produces the physical equivalent of a specialist who has little competency outside the speciality.” Those athletes who participate in a variety of sports up to at least the age of 14 years may therefore potentially be more robust and less fragile than those that specialize early.

When to specialize? Bompa (2000) and the British Athletic Federation (2000) agree that specialization should take place no earlier than 15-16 years of age. Therefore coaches of athletes under the age of 15 years must be aware of the need to manage an all-round, balanced development of the young athlete, encouraging involvement in a variety of running, jumping and throwing activities.

Conclusion:

Young athletes need to be provided with an all-round, balanced development, and be encouraged to participate in, and practice for, a variety of athletics events and other sports.  This will help to provide them with a physical and technical base on which to build their future athletic endeavours.

The aim of the coach should be to develop a good general athlete through the provision of a wide variety of movement experiences before any specialization takes place.

Training sessions for young athletes should be fun and aimed at developing general athletic qualities such as speed, general strength and endurance, flexibility, agility, balance, coordination, power and reaction time, as well as engaging them in a wide range of events.

This many-sided approach to development may be referred to as “multi-lateral”. A multi-lateral, broad-based training approach that promotes sustained long-term development should be emphasized when developing a young athlete.

Exclusively training an athlete for a particular event or event group from an early age should be avoided.

Early specialization may bring short-term success but is that what you really want?

What do you think?

Do you agree? One sport or multi-sport? Let me know by leaving a comment/reply or by using the below contact details.

References & Further Reading:

  • Bompa, T., PhD, Conditioning Young Athletes, 2015, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL
  • Bompa, T., PhD, Total Training for Young Champions, 2000, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL
  • British Athletics Federation, Coaching Young Athletes, Coaching Theory Manual, 1996
  • LeBlanc, J. & Dickson L., Straight Talk About Children and Sport, 1997, Coaching Association Of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario
  • Rushall, B., “The growth of physical characteristics in male and female children”, Sports Coach – Summer 1998, pp25-27
  • Recipe For A Young Athlete’s Future Success

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20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin , Anchor or via email.

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3 thoughts on “How Sport Specialization Can Actually Limit Athlete Potential

  1. Well written with some good resources! If only we had sport coaches that understood they are reducing their chances of producing great athletes when they discourage them from doing other sports! Guess this might be less prevalent in athletics due to the multi event nature?

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment. You would be surprised. A number of track & field coaches specialize (i.e. They see themselves as a “sprints” coach or a “throws” coach) which results in the athletes that they coach only being instructed in these events. I personally believe that all coaches of young athletes should be “multi-event” coaches. Unfortunately these coaches seem to be very few and far between. On the positive side, the Little Athletics movement in Australia (see littleathletics.com.au) is conducted so that at the local weekly grass roots club level, all young athletes rotate through a variety events.

      Like

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