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Early specialisation in sport. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing or is it not as simple as that? | Coaching Youth (age 13-18)

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Coaching Youth (age 13-18)

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Posted in: Coaching Youth (age 13-18), General Forum

Early specialisation in sport. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing or is it not as simple as that?

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  • robertkmaaye

    As David Turner said in his recent blog early specialisation in sport can be an emotive issue. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing or is it not as simple as all that?

    If you haven’t read ‘Extreme nurture or slow cooked children in sport – does it matter?’ yet I highly recommend it!

    Be interested to know what people’s thoughts are...

    Feel free to either leave a comment at the end of David’s blog or reply to this conversation with your thoughts

  • I think it is highly dependent on the sport itself. Footballers can play into their mid/late 30's and many people in athletics are in 20s and we have seen many examples of people crossing into different sports via talent spotting days and initiatives set up. Some sports depend on a matured body, powerful with developed strength. 

    BUT ...

    Some sports have seen a rise in teenagers topping the world stage podiums, where by the time you have hit 19/20 you are seen as being a regular on the circuit or maybe even past your best. 

    These sports require early specialisation because if children don't, they will miss the opportunity - or be seen to be missing it. I think when this happens other sports should be enjoyed also as it will contribute to overall training, help maintain a balanced lifestyle (where kids can be kids as well as athletes) and also help the psychological side of things.

    The other side of the coin with all this is the fact that many athletes struggle to find their identity once they have retired from sport. So if you have peaked in the sport by 20 (as an example), how is the fall out of retirement dealt with as often specialising in sport so young means other areas of life are sacrificed in pursuit of excellence.

  • David_T

    Hi Danielle,

    Thank you for your thoughts.  I agree about there being considerations for different sports, but also events within sports.  e.g. as a thrower in athletics you're likely to peak later than a pole vaulter perhaps - I know there are expections of course!

    The question for me is perhaps how many early specialisation sports are there, what does the research say so we can back that up and then how do we get this message to parents, coaches and then probably parents again and again!!

  • CWCreative

    I'm fascinated by this early specialisation issue and would love people's views for an article in the next issue of Coaching Edge.

    Clearly the early specialisation 'camp' (if they still exist!) are taking a bit of a battering at the moment with overwhelming evidence supporting kids diversifying in sport for many reasons, including injury and burn-out prevention, psychological well-being, wider tactical, technical and physical development and, simply, having more fun.

    However, as well as stating that side of the argument I'd like to challenge it and see if there are exceptions.

    Would coaches in gymnastics, swimming and figure skating, where athletes tend to peak earlier, be prepared to state the case for early specialisation? Why is specialising young necessary in your sport? Do you see the stated risks (psychological burn-out etc) manifesting themselves in your athletes later on?

    If you're interested in appearing in the next issue, drop me a line at mdale@coachwise.ltd.uk, @CW_creative or @mike_dale1978.

    Many thanks.

  • NickRuddock

    Hi Mike,

    Great topic. As always, no right or wrong, and there will be exceptions 'to the rules' irrespective of which camp coaches sit in.

    My world is woman's artistic gymnastics. Although the sport is gradually changing, with the average senior age now increasing, it is still predominantly a sport where the athletes peak pre-pubescently, with significant volumes of training after 9 years of age. 

    The performance pathway requires early specialisation in gymnastics 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 an 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, 9 year old athletes may already be performing upwards of 18 hours per week, and this could increase anything up to 35 later on. 

    I'm not arguing FOR early specialisation here, just giving an insight into our world. Our rules and requirements are so immensely challenging, that time spent 'in the gym' is incredibly precious. 

  • CWCreative

    Thanks Nick, that's really useful. Obviously much of the current research stresses the value of children diversifying while they're young (and the risks of not doing so), but gymnastics confidently states its case as an exception. Coaches need their athletes to put the time in, and I shall certainly be reflecting that in Coaching Edge as well as other sides of the debate. I've spoken to Jo Coombs and I'll make sure to include some of your points too.

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