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Early specialization vs. diversification among young people

Early specialization vs. diversification among young people?

Master’s student in the study of human movement

Competition levels are at an all-time high among young people involved in sporting activities, leading to an increase in the number of competitions at an early age, specialization of training and the orientation of young athletes towards a single sport (2). Competition seasons are getting longer and longer, and parents are being asked to register their children for teams all year round. Although more and more young people are taking part in sporting activities, it seems that multi-sport is a thing of the past (4). This begs the question: should early specialization or diversification be favored among young athletes?

The arguments for early specialization are based on acquiring as much experience as possible in the sport in order to better develop the qualities specific to the activity in question. This is mainly due to the 10-year or 10,000-hour rule established in the 1990s with young violinists. According to the group of German psychologists who carried out this study, it would take a violinist 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. When this theory is directly applied to athletes, it means that they should start at an early age and train as often and for as long as possible to develop the skills specific to the sport in which they want to perform. However, it is important to mention that no study has analyzed the application of this rule in young athletes. To ensure that a child is ready for structured practice, certain fundamental developmental components should be considered. For example, the development of motor skills such as running, throwing, kicking and jumping should form the basis of a balanced sporting practice. If a child lacks these essential motor development stages and tries to specialize in a sport early on, the experience may not be as positive as expected. That said, training the specific motor skills required for performance in a particular sport may limit the development and transferability of other motor skills acquired in other sports (3-5).

Another key factor to consider is the ongoing growth of young athletes. Constant changes in body weight, size and composition can put additional stress on joints and other tissues. Moreover, young people who specialize early in a single sport are more likely to suffer overuse injuries, especially as training intensity and volume increase (2-4).

Lately, early specialization also seems to be mentally problematic. Depression in athletes can be an unwanted effect of early specialization. This depression can go so far as to cause disinterest or even a complete cessation of the sport that was previously enjoyable for the athlete.

Sports diversification
Sports diversification involves exposing children to a multitude of sports, with the aim of providing fun rather than practice. This theory is based on the fact that participation in several activities promotes the development of fundamental physical and cognitive skills, as they intersect in different environments. The acquisition of fundamental skills could take place as part of a process of sport specialization, but it will depend greatly on the specificity of the sport practiced. A player’s ability to understand the game or anticipate an opponent’s movement based on the right visual cues will be better if the player has been exposed to several sports that present different game configurations (3-5). Here are a few more facts about youth sports diversification:

  1. This does not prevent participation in sports where peak performance comes late.
  2. Is linked to longer sports careers.
  3. Is associated with the positive development of young athletes.
  4. Increases intrinsic motivation by bringing more pleasure.
  5. Diversifies the spectrum of motor and cognitive experiences.
  6. Children should be able to choose whether they want to specialize in a sport or continue to play it recreationally.
  7. After playing a number of different sports, teenagers have developed the physical, cognitive, emotional, social and other skills they need to succeed in specializing in their chosen sport.

In closing, there are many examples of professional athletes who have illustrated the benefits of sports diversification. Athletes such as Tom Brady (NFL), Dan Marino (NFL), Tom Glavine (MLB), Michael Jordan (NBA) and Matt Moulson (NHL) are just a few examples of athletes who have played or been drafted in more than one professional sport. We already know that early involvement in sports helps develop general motor skills such as hand-eye coordination, jumping, throwing, leaping, balancing and running. For its part, diversification brings different stimuli from one sport to another, enabling young people to develop a multitude of motor skills that can overlap and be useful in performing in their chosen sport. Indeed, specialization should only be considered once the mental, physical and social spheres have been fully developed. However, there are some sports that are exceptions to this premise, such as gymnastics and figure skating, because the peak for these sports comes much earlier. As a result, the acquisition and mastery of certain highly complex movements must take place before the growth spurt. All in all, the most effective method is to let the child choose the sports he or she is passionate about, to get him or her to discover more than one sport, and to encourage and support him or her in the process. In this way, young people are much less likely to burn out, over-train or develop overuse injuries, which will lead them to become better at their sport, and better athletes in general.

Tom Brady (NFL) – Drafted in the 18th round in 1995 by the Montreal Expos in the MLB.
Dan Marino (NFL) – Drafted in the 4th round in 1979 by the Kansas City Royals in the MLB.
Tom Glavine (MLB) – Drafted in the 4th round in 1984 by the Los Angels Kings in the NHL.
***He had beaten out Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, both of whom were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
Michael Jordan – Played in Class AA for the Chicago White Sox after his retirement from the NBA.
Matt Moulson – Drafted in the 4th round in 2003 by the Rochester Knighthawks of the National Lacrosse League.

Written by Yannick Laflamme, Master’s student in the study of human movement
Translated by Léandre Gagné Lemieux, M.Sc. kinesiology

1) Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). To Sample or to Specialize? Seven Postulates About Youth Sport Activities that Leads to Continued Participation and Elite Performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 9:7-17.
2) Difiori, J., Benjamin, H., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G., & Luke, A (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 24(1):3-20.
3) Hensch, L (2006). Specialization or diversification in youth sport? Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators. 19(5):21-27.
4) Johnson, J (2008). Overuse injuries in young athletes: Cause and prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 30(2): 27-31.
5) Oliver, J., Lloyd, R., & Meyers, R (2011). Training elite child athletes: Promoting welfare and well-being. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 33(4): 73-79.

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