Wandering the sports grounds of Princes on any given afternoon is a joy. On every oval, court and pitch you can find boys pouring themselves wholeheartedly into activities that they love. The passion, fun and learning are clearly evident. We are truly blessed to have boys who love to play.
With this in mind, a particularly relevant topic of debate is, at what point should we encourage children to specialize in that one sport that they love? Early specialisation relates to extending engagement in one activity at the expense of others. This may include longer pre or post-season involvement, more training sessions or deeper and more intricate assessment of your son’s performance.
It is a question that generates heated discussion amongst parents and coaches. The best contemporary research into physical literacy and long term athletic development of children would suggest that children are pushed to specialize too often and too early.
The premise behind early-specialisation is honourable. Initially, your child may show good improvement when assessed against others of the same age. Greater training volumes may translate to good improvement in basic skills and understanding of game related concepts. In theory, early specialisation would seem logical especially when your son ‘loves the game’.
Unfortunately, in most sports, the evidence around early specialisation would suggest that it is actually quite damaging on most occasions.
It seems counterintuitive. How could specialization reduce success?
It’s connected to physical literacy and the need to develop a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional skills within sport. When researchers look at top athletes across a range of sports, the majority of them are distinguished by broad athletic ability from playing a variety of sports as children. This kind of broad athleticism doesn’t happen when kids specialize in one sport from an early age.
Too often, we see prodigious youth talent completely burnt out by the time boys are ready to leave school. Often this burn out can be traced back to the added physical and emotional stress that those extra training sessions and compounded expectations to succeed bring into their lives. The sport they once loved becomes a grind and when others who don’t do the extra work catch up or go past them, they do not have the mental resilience skillset to continue.
Further, I could write a book on the research around the problems of overuse injury to ligaments, young bones and growth plates due to premature and repetitive specialisation.
Is early specialization wrong for all sports? No. But research shows very few sports where it helps.
Sports and activities such as gymnastics and diving, generally require early specialization. To reach the highest levels of competition, your child needs to start young and spend most of their time practicing that sport or activity.
However, sports such as Australian rules football, soccer, rugby, basketball, cricket, and tennis are late specialization sports. If you want your child to have a chance to rise to elite status in these sports, the evidence suggests they should also play other sports until at least age 14. This is called “sampling” or “early diversification”.
Ironically, in many cases, the skills that are learnt in other sports directly benefit the sport you may feel is hampered by sampling others. The ‘ground ball fielding’ they learn in cricket will help their ability to retrieve the ground ball in football or rugby, the scanning they do in soccer will assist their ability to read the play in basketball, the core strength they develop in rowing will allow them to be strong as they drive the ball in cricket.
So when should your child specialize in one sport? First of all, you should ask them if they even want to specialize. Maybe they don’t want to, and that’s okay. Not everyone dreams of going to the Olympics or playing in the AFL. Forcing children to live your dreams will only set them up for an almighty fall.
When you feel the pressure to make your child take on extra training or sign up for that ‘you beaut’ year long academy, please also take time to consider that elite athletes like Scott Pendlebury (AFL) played basketball until he was drafted, Ricky Ponting (Cricket) was a terrific footballer, Shane Warne (Cricket) played junior elite football, Gary Ablett jr (AFL) well…he did everything! Skateboarding, soccer, basketball, juggling, surfing. Roger Federer was a significantly engaged soccer player until his teen years.
Developing a broad range of physical literacy is absolutely key in giving your child every chance to find their own specialty… in their own time!
Director of Co-curricular