Early sports specialisation in children

Is early sports specialisation in children a good thing? Why do we do it … and what are the risks?

Participation in sports is very important for young people and the beneficial effects for physical and mental wellbeing have been thoroughly documented, but the extent to which young people specialise in a single sport and the age at which they specialise is a matter of some controversy.

A growing number of children are specialising in a single sport at an early age. As a parent, early specialisation is an enticing way to train children. The obvious benefits are that children respond very quickly to exercise and make dramatic improvements in their sporting performance, and confidence, at an early age. Coaches who see big improvements in a young athletes performance as their training schedules increases sometimes encourage early specialisation. It is easy to see why, when their athletes win with increasing frequency.

The reality, however, is that only 0.05% of teenage athletes will make it as professional athletes. And – with a very few exceptions, like gymnastics – children who specialise early are no more likely to make it to the top 50 in the world. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that whilst early specialisers may reach milestones earlier, it’s the late specialisers who go on to have the most successful sporting careers as adults. So while many parents believe they are giving their children a head start with intensive single sport training, the opposite may in fact be true.

The potential problems with early specialisation have been discussed in research literature (Mostafavifar et al 2013) and include; reduced acquisition of global motor skills, burn out, increased risk of injury and a reduced confidence to participate in other forms of exercise when they decide to drop the sport in question in adolescence.

1. As children specialise in a single sport they finely tune the movement patterns of that sport, but lose out on the multidirectional stimulus of a more rounded programme. Research has shown that children who specialise in single sport at an early age lack gross motor coordination skills when compared with their peers.

2. Increased susceptibility to injury. ‘The three sport athlete avoids injury’. This phrase relates to the way in which multiple sports utilise many different movement patterns and develop muscular strength and endurance. Single sport participation can lead to overload on the tissues specific to that sport and underload (or shadow) the tissues that are not heavily involved. The underloaded structures become weak and the overloaded tissue becomes susceptible to injury. Up to 50% of all injuries seen in paediatric sports medicine are related to overuse injuries.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that “young athletes should participate in sports at a level consistent with their abilities and interests and pushing children beyond these limits is discouraged, as is specialisation in a single sport before adolescence”.

A variety of sports are needed for the young athlete to develop proper motor skills, multidirectional flexibility and global strength and endurance. When you consider these factors it is not surprising that most elite athletes are often those who specialised in sports later in life (Moesche et al. 2011).

The reality is that most of our children will not become professional athletes. The goal then for these children might be to learn a diverse selection of sporting activities that they can enjoy as adults. Participating in these activities as children gives them the confidence and physical skills they will need to become active adults, with all the associated advantages in mental and physical wellbeing.

So whether we are hoping to rear the next olympic champion or an adult who can put their hand to a wide range of recreational sports, is it time to think again about early sports specialisation?