At What Age Should Kids Narrow Their Sports Focus?
Youth sport specialisation is a topic that I am passionate about. I am asked about it a lot in my role as a track & field coach. The most common question is:
When should a young athlete specialise?
Track & Field Specialisation
When it comes to track & field, specialisation refers to an athlete preparing and practising for only one event (e.g. high jump, shot put, hurdles, etc) or event group (e.g. jumps, throws, distance running, etc).
If I am asked when a young athlete should begin to specialise in a particular event in track and field, my response is:
I firmly believe that a young athlete should be treated as a multi-event athlete, until at least 15-16 years of age.
This means that they prepare, practice for, and participate in, a wide range of events. They run, jump, throw and walk.
Sport specialisation is when an athlete participates in only one sport to the exclusion of others.
Young athletes should generally not specialise in a particular sport until at least 15-16 years of age.
The Problems of Early Specialisation
Earlier specialisation in a sport, or within a sport can result in a number of problems:
1. A narrow development of muscles and systems
Early specialisation can result in restricted exposure to a variety of movements and exercises, leading to a narrow skill-set. For long-term sports involvement, and particularly if an athlete has a goal to participate in a higher level or even high performance sport, they will need to have a wide base of movement experiences on which to call. Early specialisation just does not allow for this.
Early specialisation restricts all-important movement experiences.
2. Boredom and burnout
Kids thrive on variety. Variety in sport, from week-to-week, session-to-session and within a session is important in maintaining an athlete’s enthusiasm. Specialisation presents the opposite scenario: a lack of variety, which can lead to a young athlete becoming bored.
Too much early emphasis on success in such a specifically-defined area may also lead to a young athlete feeling pressured by expectation. This can lead to the athlete “burning out”.
Early specialisation decreases variety and increases pressure.
3. Sports-related injuries
Early specialisation is more likely to result in an athlete suffering sports-related injuries. Too much repetition of a particular movement or set of skills can be stressful on an immature body structure.
Also, it is my experience that kids who are specialising are often prescribed inappropriate training content for their stage of development. Too much of the wrong training too soon will almost certainly result in stress injuries.
Early specialisation stresses an immature body.
4. Picking the wrong event
In track & field, early specialisation can see an athlete being steered towards an event or event group prior to growth and development running its course, meaning that an athlete’s eventual body size and shape may not suit the event in which they have specialised.
For example, a young boy achieves some early “success” in the shot put. He is bigger and stronger than others in his age group. This results in some obvious advantages. His early success leads to the him specialising in the event. He practices only for the shot put and neglects developing his skills in the other events. As adolescence arrives the young “shot putter” doesn’t grow and develop as much as his peers and is no longer the biggest and strongest. In fact, his body size and shape is not suited to the shot put at all and some of his peers become more suited. Having only developed skills in an event that he is no longer suited for, and neglected skills in other areas, the athlete, disillusioned, leaves the sport.
Early specialisation may leave an athlete focusing on a track & field event that eventually does not suit them.
The same scenario can take place when kids specialise too early in a particular sport.
“If you’re a parent who struggles with the thought of your kid falling behind in one sport, I would reframe it as this: If you choose 1 sport, they will fall behind in other sports where it may be a better fit.”
Casey Wheel @CoachWheel
A Cautionary Note About Multi-Sport/Multi-Event Participation
One issue of which to be aware when developing young multi-event/multi-sport athletes is the danger of over-committing the child. We need to avoid overburdening them with too much practice for sport as we try to involve them in a wide range of activities. Over-commitment may lead to exhaustion. It may also lead to burnout and injuries, which ironically, are two problems we are trying to prevent by avoiding early specialisation.
A fine line exists between involvement in a wide range of activities and too many activities.
I highly recommend that young athletes delay specialising in a sport or within a sport until at least 15 or 16 years of age.
Earlier specialisation is more likely to result in a more fragile athlete that is more likely to exit the sport early.
Later specialisation is more likely to result in a more robust athlete who is “better built”, possessing a wonderful base from which to launch their future athletic and sporting endevours.
Hence the importance of delaying specialisation until at least 15 or 16 years of age. Let’s give kids a broad base and keep them interested with lots of variety.
Early specialisation = Early exit from the sport.
Over To You
Consider what you can do in your role as a coach or sports parent to help kids avoid early specialisation. What can you do within your circle of influence? I would love to hear your ideas. Let me know by leaving a reply/comment or by using the below contact details.
Recommended Online course:
Complete Youth Training by Athletes Acceleration
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Darren 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 Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Anchor or via email.