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A question that weighs heavily on the mind of any sport-orientated (or vicarious) parent interested in producing a talented athlete – do I force them to play one sport only or raise them on multi-sports? Well, the evidence is mixed in terms of real-life examples of elite performers and research into young people. This article aims to try and make sense of it all.Let’s start by keeping it simple – Tiger Woods was introduced to golf before his second birthday and played nothing but. He adhered to the 10,000 hours rule where if you complete 10,000 hours of purposeful practice then you can master a given skill (Ericsson, 2007) and make it to the elite stage. There are clear-cut examples from chess and music that adhere to this rule too however The Science of Sport (2011) correctly discern that playing chess is very different from a physical sport where inherited physical characteristics can play a significant part. An example would be that you need to be tall to play basketball or have a high ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibres to be a successful sprinter (Trappe et al., 2015).The Long-Term Athletic Development model developed in Canada suggests that children should start life actively, learning through play. From roughly the age of six, they are introduced to the fundamentals of movement such as how to run, jump, throw and strike correctly. Also, there is the introduction of multi-sports where the child gets to try a multitude of sports. Basic sport psychology would dictate that there would be positive skill transfer from the fundamentals and multi-sports to a specific sport. It’s like that tennis player at school who was always good at squash even though they never played it.
As the child grows up, they drop the number of sports down to three and then around the age of 16, they specialise in one. Gary and Phil Neville were both talented cricketers that represented Lancashire at Under-14 in 1992 while playing football at Manchester United. This may have had something to do with their father Neville Neville being a former professional cricketer but it goes to show that you can be very good at more than one sport. Another example includes Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain excelling as a full-back in rugby before choosing to pursue football. Media focus on elite examples should be taken with a pinch of salt as the huge majority of early specialisers or multi-sport diversifiers that did not make it to the elite stage are invisible from the media’s eye.
LTAD seems to stem from common sense, a well-rounded athlete will do well in most sports that have an athletic or biomechanical element and this is the reason why National Governing Bodies are beginning to use it to underpin their development strategies. Ajax Academy have adopted their own multi-sport approach. Having produced top level footballers such as Bergkamp, Sneijder, Davids … (the list is endless), you could say they are a leading authority on youth development. They have incorporated basketball, judo, gymnastics and athletics into their academy programme in order to produce well-rounded athletes. This leads to more robust athletes, stronger, quicker and less prone to injury.
Having said this, Mattson and Richards (2010) found that early specialisation was beneficial for sports that favoured a certain physique i.e. ice skating however they mention the merit of diversifying if the main sport requires significant physical conditioning. So, a sport where there a huge variation of physiques that are successful (e.g. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, de Bruyne in football) then diversification might be better for the athlete as the body needs to cope with high intensities while performing a range of actions.
What do you make of early specialisation or the LTAD model? Are they viable models for athlete development or do they not meet the individual needs of athletes? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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Ericsson, K. A. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 115-121.
Gould, D. (2010) Early Sport Specialization: A Psychological Perspective. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 81.8 (Oct 2010): 33-37.
Mattson, J. and Richards J. (2010) Early Specialization in Youth Sport: A Biomechanical Perspective. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 81.8 (Oct 2010): 26-28,39.
Moesch, K., Elbe, A., Hauge, M. and Wikman, J. (2011) Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports [online]. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 2011. Available from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21401722 [accessed 28th December 2016]
For me, early diversification is essential to making life long athletes and sports lovers. Developing different motor skills can improve performance across other sports too, so in my opinion should be encouraged. One thing I can't abide is these sports which have a "2 week break" from it then straight back into "pre-season". Coaches and teachers should encourage players to play as many sports as possible. Also early specialisation has been linked to dropping out of sport as a teenager/before adulthood, if someone genuinely loves it, fine, but you should never force someone to train one sport all year round.
Thanks for this Matt - I must have mentioned it on my other blog but Multi-sport athletes tend to be more rounded socially as they have to adapt to different subcultures and mix with groups from different backgrounds. However interestingly, the early-specialisers formed stronger bonds with their smaller groups of friends
I'm certainly of the view that a diverse mix of sports, coaches well, is the preferred option. That said I've found it incredibly frustrating when either (a) those other sports don't share that view or (b) the quality of coaching in those other sports is detrimental.In respect of (a) I had great dofficulty with one lad, a sprinter, who struggled to do any particularly effective sprint sessions because his school bullied him into training for, or playing rugby matches 5 times a week. Diversification only works if all the sports are on board with that approach.In respect of (b) I lost count of the number of times I helped one athlete rehab a knee injury, get her back into several weeks of consistent pain free running, before going back to football training at the local academy and he thrown straight back into full pace matcg scenarios and have the injury flare up again.I think we also need to be careful what we mean by diversification - I coach track and field athletes, and have found a multi event approach covering hurdles, sprints, middle distance running, jumps and throws with an underlying focus on fundamental movement skills gives a far more rounded experience than someone doing, for example, just football and rugby.
Thanks for this Andy. I completely agree that a unified, organised approach is needed for multi-sports and most regions seem to lack the collaboration between schools, clubs and regional governing bodies to allow it to happen effectively. Injury management is not often a specialist subject of most amateur coaches and knowledge of identifying common risk factors for certain injuries within certain sports should be a staple of the NGB coaching qualifications e.g. Football (soccer) hamstring and adductor weakness.I completely agree that fundamentals are the key and I know for a fact, my region is having a big push on physical literacy assessment and coaching in schools - apologies if the blog's examples seem reductive!
Thanks Mick, much appreciated.
I need to make sure I keep my eye on what problem I am trying to solve. Most kids do not have the tools to compete at the highest level. Parents hear two messages. One is that the child needs to play multiple sports. The other is that they need to play each sport year round. Add together we get kids over-training and parents overspending in belief that there is nothing but air and 10k hours between them and the big show. And the coaching industry encourages it. How would things change if our goal was to see young players still playing rec ball as parents?
Sorry for the delay Jim. Completely agree that there are a lot of reductive, mixed messages out there. Simple ways to check things are working are:-are my players/children happy?-are they injury free and have high energy levels?-are they getting more confident? (I thought about putting better/more skilful here but thought that confidence was more indicative of a well-rounded athlete)If the answer is no to any of those then something needs to be addressed.
Enjoyed the article and wish more people could read it. I've always advocated the importance of multi sports and athletes I've coached at schools have usually got involved in wide variety of different teams/sports because of the physical benefits but also because it's fun - some often realise they're better at a different sport! I wish I personally still had the time to do all the different sports I enjoy, so let's provide the opportunities for young people when they can. My own children do a wide range of sports and the physical benefits are clear. They are both slim and light but the conditioning they've developed through gymnastics and swimming has helped them cope with the demands of the introduction of contact in rugby - there are many other examples I could provide that only confirm the importance of multi sports. I also agree with Matt's comment about sports having a 2 week break and then back to pre-season - this is ridiculous and football seems to be one of the worst culprits. Our rugby season runs from September to April which gives a healthy 4 months to try something else on a Sunday morning (including a lie in!?). It also allows them a break so when they return they are excited about playing rugby again. As children grow up they will naturally decide what sports they would like to continue or specialise in, but at least with a multi sports approach they have a choice, not to mention the physical, social and mental benefits of all those different activities they've enjoyed.
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