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Too Much, Too Young?

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Early specialisation

Early specialisation is a complex and emotive issue

Article from Coaching Edge Winter 2015/2016: Me, Myself and Ice

In pursuit of excellence, children are specialising in one sport at an ever-younger age. This usually pays rapid dividends, but, as Coaching Edge’s Mike Dale discovers, it also carries long-term risks that many coaches are wilfully ignoring.

Here’s a scenario you may have encountered: the parent of a promising eight year old approaches you and asks, ‘Is it time for my child to specialise?’

Would you like this young talent to give up their other sports, focus exclusively on yours, and most likely commit to you as their coach? Pretty tempting to answer ‘yes’, isn’t it?

But take a moment to ponder why the parent is asking the question. Scholarships, academy places, county squads and national junior teams twinkle in front of children’s (and parents’) eyes as rungs on the ladder to a professional career. Only the ‘best’ rise through the ranks. The rest are filtered out. This process can start from as young as five.

It’s the desperation to remain in this system that ultimately drives children into dedicating themselves to one sport as early as possible. It may be fun flitting between football pitch, tennis court and cricket club, but it just won’t clock up those fabled 10,000 hours quickly enough.

This systemic push to specialise at an early age ignores some uncomfortable evidence in contemporary research.

Athletes who specialise in one sport at a young age are 70–93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports. Overuse injuries account for up to 50% of injuries in paediatric sports medicine.

There are psychological dangers too. Parents who’ve invested time and money expect results. This brings pressure and stress. Family relationships can become strained. Burnout and dropout rates are high. There are strong links with inactivity in adulthood.

It’s also recognised that children with a wider repertoire of physical, technical, tactical and mental abilities (accrued by playing a variety of sports) stand out later on in life from those whose skills are limited to a single sport.

Because their athletes tend to peak at an earlier age, sports such as gymnastics, swimming and figure skating are often cited as exceptions. Some question the veracity of this, but these sports state their case strongly.

We hear from gymnastics coaches, as well as other practitioners in coaching, sports medicine and academia, as we seek to shed more light on this complex and emotive issue.

The Coach’s View

Stuart Armstrong, RFU Player Pathways Manager and The Talent Equation blogger.

Coaches and parents aren’t the cause of early specialisation. They’re a symptom of the system. And it’s a broken system.

Premier League football clubs, for example, are scouting five year olds, desperate to get ‘the best ones’ first. It’s a ‘race to the bottom’, a sausage factory with absolutely no interest whatsoever in the collateral damage it causes, as long as one or two come through who can be sold on for a profit. It’s selection for a tiny minority and de-selection for the many.

We’ve all heard tales of coaches telling parents, ‘If they’re not training four times a week, they’ll never make it.’ That volume of training leaves no time for other sports, or simply to play, have fun, be a child!

We’ve all seen examples of burnout and dropout that results in. The kid ranked top 10 in the country who goes off the rails at university because they’re free from parental pressure for the first time in their lives. You see a child’s life being dictated to them, or the child following orders because they’re desperate to win a parent’s approval, which has downstream psychological issues. You see kids being over-fed on one sport and lose their passion, which has to be the primary driver for success. Then there’s the child who’s better than everybody else, because they’ve specialised early, but doesn’t have the mental characteristics to cope when everyone else catches up later.

The simple way to mitigate these things is not to follow a single-sport pathway too early.

If every governing body of sport stopped having national under-16 sides, which have an inverse correlation with future success, you’d solve the early specialisation problem very quickly.

I’m not saying the RFU’s system is perfect, but our policy makers have decided that Premiership academies can’t recruit players before the age of 13 and they can’t be contracted until they’re 18. We are doing away with as much of the selection process as possible before the age of 16.

This will drive an entirely different set of parental and coaching behaviours.

As kids are forced to do more and more hours’ practice to compete at elite level, I think sports governing bodies face an uncomfortable question: how much collateral damage are we prepared to accept in the pursuit of excellence for a few.

The Academic’s View

Dr William Russell, Associate Professor at Missouri WesternState University, Dept of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

In my research, when comparing people who had specialised early with those who had sampled (ie played multiple sports), the specialisers were much less likely to be participants later as college athletes or even recreationally.

However, I think it’s naïve to say simply, ‘specialisation is bad and sampling is good’. You need to take into account other variables, like the coach.

A kid can specialise and have a great coach who has the child’s best interests at heart, doesn’t push them too hard or too fast and really focuses on their skill improvement rather than purely winning and losing.

You may get a child who specialises in a sport early but who gets a healthy sense of motivation and development in that sport. The bottom line is, we want to develop passion for sport in younger kids because it’s that passion that makes it likely they will stick with it.

Specialising is only negative if young athletes’ sense of self-determination is compromised. If they’re motivated to demonstrate competence, autonomy and relatedness with others, and develop friendships, these can be very rich and satisfying experiences for kids, whether they specialise in one sport or not.

If the child, at a young age, is intrinsically motivated to devote all that time and attention to one sport, and does so out of free will, I don’t have as much of a problem with it.

But all too often I’m afraid that’s not the case. They are being driven into specialising either by coaches, or by parents who are living vicariously through their children.

Coaches are in a great position to educate parents about this issue, but only if they’re well informed. Unfortunately, encouraging young athletes to go off and sample other sports can be a very difficult thing to persuade some coaches to do.

What The Professionals Say

‘I’m so comfortable with my footwork because I played soccer. From changing rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable using my right or left foot as a pivot.’

Kobe Bryant, five-time NBA champion

‘We did not raise our kids to be one-sport athletes. He hung up his golf clubs during football and baseball season – he was a quarterback and a pitcher.’

Chris Spieth, father of 22-year-old Jordan, 2015 Masters and US Open champion

‘Playing basketball for a bit throughout the year [as a child] gave me the chance to crave soccer, to miss it.’

Abby Wambach, USA, World Cup winner

The Medic’s View

Kevin Hall MSc, MACP,MCSP, SRP; physiotherapist.

At best, early specialisation may result in success for a few, but the sacrifice we pay is that many become inactive. That’s not a price worth paying.

Sure, let’s celebrate the one or two who become elite athletes, but my focus as a medical professional is on those who don’t make it, because the numbers are much, much greater.

If three girls made it as international gymnasts, what was the cost for those who didn’t make it? How active are they now? Perhaps they did 15 hours of gymnastics a week but now as grown-ups they’re inactive because they weren’t the right physiology, their bodies have broken down or they never acquired any other skills because all they did was gymnastics.

As a physiotherapist trying to rehabilitate an ex-gymnast, getting them to do any recreational exercise is really hard. They’ve got such mobile spines and they’ve got no way of controlling them when they run. They just ram their lumbar spine into extension.

There was a report in the Journal of Sports Sciences (Job Franzen, 2013) studying boys aged 10–12. They looked at jumping, hopping, multi-directional, functional skills and they found that kids who specialise early aren’t as good. They don’t have the repertoire of skills as kids who specialise late or do multi-sports.

Yet I know kids who are swimming 12 hours a week at the age of 10 and they’re still being pressured to do more. That’s just wrong. It’s hard for everyone to understand the concept that there’s a capacity for children’s tissue to tolerate load.

When you do just one activity, for example front crawl, you do thousands and thousands of the same stroke. You load your tendons, cartilage, muscle tissue and connected tissue in precisely the same way, all week, every week, for years and years. The mechanics of that front crawl movement mean some of the tissue is minimally loaded, and some is under high load.

But if you combine that with a different movement like playing tennis, other bits will be under high load and different parts will be under low load. So while I’m unloading the bits that get loaded when I swim, when I play tennis I load other bits. Then if I go for a bike ride I pretty much give my shoulders a rest.

Basically you’re shifting the forces around the tissue, so when you load the tissue doing one thing, it’s recovering when you’re doing something else. It’s the principle behind the saying, ‘The three-sport athlete avoids injury.’

Gymnastics’ View

Jo Coombs, Head of Performance and Excellence at Welsh Gymnastics.

It is known that you can develop children’s flexibility much quicker before they’ve gone through puberty. By then, your weight ratio and ability to manipulate your body has changed, particularly in females.

In women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics particularly, you’re seen as being senior aged 16. So if it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to reach the pinnacle, then you’re looking at starting as a six year old.

With artistic you’ve got four pieces of apparatus to master and in rhythmic you’ve got five hand apparatus plus your body skills. So you can’t really spend time on other activities because of the number of hours you’ve got to put in just to get to a basic level, and then be able to advance.

We are getting far better at planning the calendar. If it’s someone we’re hoping will be a top-level gymnast, we’ll look at what we want them to achieve in four years’ time and we’ll look at a cycle.

We try to limit them doing too much over any particular year, so they have time for recovery and rest, to eliminate the burnout. We also work with psychologists to look at the mental side, increase their mental toughness, look at what their anxieties are and how we can support them through that.

With parents we try to make it clear that it’s not important to win at a young age.

It doesn’t really matter. We don’t just want them to be fantastic at under-10, because that doesn’t mean anything at a senior level, and that’s where we want them to get to.

We are competing against countries with factory lines where the ethical stuff isn’t quite as clear as it is in Britain. You are constantly asking how our athletes can compete, but stay within a moral framework and not break them.

Nick Ruddock, British Gymnastics High Performance Coach and ConnectedCoaches Member.

Although gymnastics is gradually changing, with the average senior age increasing, it is still predominantly a sport where the athletes peak in pre-pubescence.

The performance pathway requires early specialisation to stay ‘on track’. This volume of gymnastics-specific training is absolutely necessary in order to acquire the level of skill and physical preparation required to compete at international level.

I am sure many coaches like me see absolute value physically, technically and mentally in exploring other sports. But time is the greatest challenge.

To put this into context, nine-year-old athletes may already be performing upwards of 18 hours per week, and this could increase to anything up to 35 later on.

I’m not arguing for early specialisation here,just giving an insight intoour world. Our rules andrequirements are soimmensely challenging, thattime spent in the gym isincredibly precious.

What did you think of this article? What are your opinions on early specialisation? Leave a comment below.

Next Steps

If you found this article interesting you might also like ConnectedCoaches member David Turner’s blog ‘Extreme nurture or slow cooked children in sport – does it matter?’

There are also a couple of conversation threads where you also might like to share your thoughts:

For more information on how you can receive Coaching Edge visit the sports coach UK website

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Comments (2)

The classic example of early specialisation is football. When I was a Podiatrist, I lost count of how many little lads came in with Osgood Schlatters and shin splints. Their work load and particular the amount of matches they did was bordering on the ridiculous. The saddest thing of all is that 99% of them will never get into the Premier League and earn the big bucks they see successful footballers earn. The reason.... Our Leagues are stuffed full of foreign players!! How many foreign top teams have home grown English players? Very very few!
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It is a great debate, and one I look at from both sides - as a coach, and as a parent to an 'emerging' gymnast......our eldest daughter does 10 hours of gymnastics a week and the development across the board (physically, technically, mentally and socially) is obvious and hugely beneficial to her. When twinned with the other activities she does (swimming, etc), it makes for a busy week!!! We see all the acitivities she is involved as something that she wants to do and enjoys. She has competed and at county level, and we have had long discussions with her coaches that her health, well being and enjoyment always comes first.

My younger daughter is involved in various clubs, but none with a big as a time commitment in one sport as her older sister, but does as many hours a week as her though.

I was, and still am, a jack of all sports (and a master at none as many of my friends will testify!!) and I often look back and wonder if I could have been better at something with a greater commitment to one or two sports.

The debate will always continue, but I am not convinced either side of the arguement is entirely right or entirely wrong.....
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