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Extreme nurture or slow cooked children in sport – does it matter?

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?  Well if you’re someone who needs the answer in the first paragraph then I’ll say it’s usually not good news for a child’s later development in sport, though there are some notable exceptions like gymnastics.  If that’s not enough for you then let’s delve further into this topic.

As coaches we should help parents make evidence based decisions about what is best for their child’s development through sport.  Finally, we want children to enjoy sport and hopefully be successful – but children are not usually elite athletes and we should not treat them as such. In fact even when they are elite athletes, they remain a child above all else.

Most of us are now in general agreement that the (Ericsson et al, 1993) 10,000 theory, based on expert musicians, cannot simply be applied to sport.  Sure, deliberate practice is pretty darn useful if you want to make it in sport.  But that doesn’t mean parents should be have their four year old opening the batting for the village cricket club.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that it is when and how specialisation takes place that is key.  Many much greater practitioners and academics than I have focused on the effect that early specialisation has on team games such as football, rugby and hockey. In those sports, the sector is in broad agreement that there is a clear technical and tactical element that underpins the majority of the sport and for arguments sake I will say this is at least as important as physical characteristics – though as we are discussing children in this blog, we must also understand and consider relative age effect. In this blog I’ll be discussing sports where success is measured in centimetres, grams or seconds (cgs), e.g. running, cycling, jumping and weightlifting, based on the work of (Moeschet al, 2011).

Early specialisation can perhaps be seen through two different lenses. 

The first that by early specialisation we mean a focus on one sport, throughout the year, from a relatively young age, with athlete and coach focusing on the development of sport-specific skills, often motivated by a desire to prioritise short-term success (e.g. junior leagues) over long-term development.  This interpretation defines early-specialisation in terms of the limited number of activities a child takes part in.  It should however be noted that a good coach of children can develop a child’s fundamental movement skills and transferable sport skills through one sport when sessions are constructed appropriately and this indeed should be the aim of a children’s coach.

This interpretation of states that more variety helps children to develop a range of transferable sports skills whilst developing a set of creative technical and tactical approaches to sport that helps to produce a well-rounded athlete. Avoiding early specialisation of this nature has been seen to be of greater benefit to children who eventually end up concentrating on team sports. What I found most interesting about the research was that it seems in order to have a benefit, practise must be enjoyable.

The other lens through which early specialisation can be seen is that of the intensity of the training a child or young person takes part in. Promotion of the 10,000 hour ‘rule’, by some writers within sport, has led some to assume that in order to hit this 10,000 target by the late teens, children should therefore be training at an almost ‘adult’ level of frequency and intensity from a young age.  Whilst we all acknowledge a clear link between practise and expertise, the research suggests that many elite-performers do not meet this 10,000 target and therefore early and high intensity training sport-specific training is not directly associated with greater success at a later stage (Vaeyens et al, 2009).  This conclusion supports my earlier assertion that the 10,000 rule should not be applied to a sporting context and not be used as a theoretical target for young sportspeople.

For children in cgs sports the critical factor appears to be the when specialisation takes place rather than how many sports they participated in.  This is likely to be due to the higher focus on physical capabilities in cgs sports.  Though I would not wish to underestimate the vital role physical capabilities play in team sports.  The elite performers in the work of (Moesch et al 2011) began to intensify their training at about the age of 18 year and overtook early specialisers, in terms of hours trained, by the age of 21.

This would suggest that the assumption, that specialising later in a given sport leads to a delay in development that cannot be made up later, is not accurate.  For example in my own sport of athletics we have often seen stars burn brightly but then fade all too young.  One classic example that springs to mind is a then 16 year old Charlotte Moore came 6th for England in the 2002 Commonwealth Games 800m final.  Charlotte justified her surprise selection with a truly world class sub-two minute run in the final.  But sadly her star never again shone as bright as that Manchester evening.  In the sprints, the record breaking Amy Spencer is another young athlete whose name is sadly synonymous with early burnout.   For parents and coaches this is something we need to reflect very carefully upon as research suggests 25% of those tipped for stardom at a young age drop out of sport altogether. 

Some key points for coaches and parents to take away:

  1. Whatever it is you’re doing it simply must be fun for the athlete for them to remain meaningfully engaged with the activity
  2. There are benefits to specialising earlier in sports such as gymnastics where peak performance can occur before full maturation
  3. In the majority of cgs sports, earlier specialisation leads to greater age-group success but sustained success at senior level can be put at risk
  4. Early specialisation can lead to negative health outcomes, injuries, shorter careers and increased drop-out
  5. Early specialised training that is not considered enjoyable has a detrimental effect on the development of expertise and intrinsic motivation.

To help write this blog I drew on ‘Late specialisation: the key to success in centimetres, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports’ Moesch K et al (2011) Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

If you have thoughts on this topic, please do get in touch or leave comments. 

Thank you to Ben Oakley at the Open University who helped inspire this blog through his book, Podium, and for his support in the drafting.

There is very rarely only one path to success and I’m always wary of anyone who tells me the science is settled – I may have things completely wrong to would love to hear your thoughts.

David Turner, sports coach UK Coaching Children Lead (@David_T_scUKspo)