Which parents wouldn’t love to see their children become elite athletes?
When a kid shows a glimpse of talent or starts to receive recognition from their coaches and peers, it is very easy to start expecting more!
Before you know it, this talent and recognition inspires parents to refer to their primary school-aged kids as rugby, tennis, soccer, or netball players.
With all this excitement it is easy to forget that children and teenagers generally participate in sports because they are fun, they provide an opportunity to hang out with friends, and they can build feelings of confidence and self-esteem.
Now, don’t get me wrong, for some sports early specialisation is the only way to reach an elite sporting level.
For others, however, it is a dangerous road with potentially detrimental and long-term consequences.
As a Coach and dad, I truly believe that parents should be given the tools to make an informed choice.
This is very important as too often they feel obliged to tag along with the sports coach and do ‘whatever it takes’ for their kids.
Let’s tackle this topic by clarifying some common terms.
Early sport specialisation
Early sport specialisation can be defined as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age” (1).
Arguments for early specialisation are generally about expertise in skill development.
Do the 10000 hours or 10 years rule sound familiar?
This approach embraces such concepts and argues that the earlier an individual starts with the purposeful practice of a skill, the earlier one becomes an expert at the skill.
Interestingly, research suggests that multi-sport samplers suffer during young age as they may potentially lag in physical fitness and gross motor coordination when compared to early-specializing peers.
However, these studies have also found that once fully developed these children generally outperform the specialists (1).
Now, it is not all negative.
In fact, sports such as swimming and gymnastics generally see athletes peak at an earlier age when compared to other sports.
These are the disciplines in which such an approach might make sense.
Late sport specialization
Late sport specialisation refers to the “participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete develops multilateral physical, social, and psychological skills” (1).
In the critical review from 2020 (2), it is clearly expressed that the end goal should be appropriate long-term sports development, such as increased physical activity, increased skill development, and the development of a life-long appreciation for physical activity, rather than early competitive success.
Sampling several activities promote positive youth development and are linked to longer sporting careers, positive implications for long-term sport participation, and intrinsic motivation.
To make sure a child is ready for structured practice, certain developmental components should be considered.
For example, sport-related fundamental motor skill development, sport-specific knowledge, motivation, and socialisation.
Fundamental motor skill development should be trained to achieve success:
Having adequate levels of physical maturation, or developmental age will help the children to learn the sport-specific skills that require strength and speed.
Although science has not definitely disproven one or the other theory, our philosophy at Athletix, with our Youth-based classes, especially for the younger kids, leans more towards the latter approach; exposing kids to a variety of stressors and movement requirements, emphasising effort and quality over results.
This approach, we believe, has more positives than negatives.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, in which we dive into some interesting guidelines.