Early Sport Specialization: A Psychological Perspective: Early Specialization Does Not Guarantee Later Sport Success
Gould, Daniel, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance
A recent study of issues and concerns related to contemporary school sports revealed that key constituency groups (coaches, athletic directors, school principals, parents of high school athletes, student-athletes) felt that there was pressure on scholastic athletes to specialize in a single sport and to do so at an early age (Gould, Carson, Filer, Lauer, & Benham, 2009). This pressure was said to come from parents, coaches, and the young athletes themselves. Persons connected to school sports are not the only ones voicing these concerns. Journalists (Farrey, 2008) and sport scientists (e.g., Gould, 2009) have also become worried that young athletes are becoming specialized too early and that this early sport specialization leads to a number of undesirable effects, such as overuse injuries, loss of motivation, and emotional stress and burnout. For instance, in his book, Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children, journalist Tom Farrey (2008) chronicled events such as the world golf championships for children ages six and under, and how coaches are recruiting children and enrolling them in year-round training programs to build powerhouse teams to compete in events like the Little League World Series of baseball.
The voices of concern are not suggesting that children should be discouraged from playing sports at an early age. On the contrary, they advocate that youths should be physically active and urge children and youths to participate. Rather, they are concerned that children are becoming involved in competitive sport at too young an age and engaging in year-round, intense training programs in a single sport before it is in their best interest to do so.
Additionally, the critics are not suggesting that sport specialization is inappropriate. Indeed, given Ericsson's (1996) work on the amount of time it takes to develop expertise (10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice) and what has been learned from tracking stages of elite athletes' development (Bloom, 1985; Cote, 1999), they recognize that in order to develop talent, athletes must and should specialize. The critical questions are, at what age should young athletes do so and what effects does it have on the developing child?
The purpose of this article is to summarize the sport psychology literature on early sport specialization and derive implications for practice. A particular focus will be placed on the benefits and detriments of early sport specialization and on why parents encourage sport specialization. Best practice guidelines will also be discussed.
What the Research Says
Unfortunately, there is very little research on youth sport specialization in general (Baker, Cobley, & Fraser-Thomas 2009) and even less on the psychological aspects of the topic. In the latest review of the literature, Baker and colleagues (2009) concluded that the research is inadequate to resolve the controversy over whether it is best to encourage youths to specialize in a sport at an early age or to diversify their efforts across multiple sports (called "sports sampling"). This conclusion does not mean that the research has no implications for guiding practice--only that not enough research has been conducted to provide a conclusive answer to the question.
While conclusive answers await additional research, some recent sport psychology research may help to guide practice. Stracchan, Cote, and Deakin (2009), for example, assessed personal and sport outcomes in 74 young athletes (M age = 13.7 years) who were classified as either "specializers" who trained exclusively in one sport (swimming, gymnastics, or diving) or "samplers" who played multiple sports. The results revealed no differences between groups in enjoyment. However, sport samplers reported greater integration of sport and family and more links to their community. Specializers reported more diverse peer relationships and higher levels of emotional exhaustion (a subcomponent of athlete burnout). Thus, while advantages were identified for both samplers and specializers, specializers were the only group to identify a negative outcome.
Brouwers, De Bosscher, Schaillee, Truyens, and Sotiriadou (2009) examined the extent to which performances at a younger age are related to elite sport success at the senior level. Using archival tournament performance data from over 3,000 tennis players, a significant correlation between performances at 14-and-under youth tournaments and the best ranking achieved at the senior level was found; however, these correlations were very weak, accounting for less than 10 percent of the variance. It was also found that a placing in the finals at important junior tournaments does not guarantee success at the senior level, as a high percentage (59 to 68%) of the winners and finalists at the junior level were unable to reach the top 200 at the senior level. In addition, some players who were unsuccessful at the junior level went on to be successful as adult players. Thus, while some relationship was found between junior and senior performance success, being successful at a younger age does not predict success with substantial accuracy at the highest levels of the game. It should also be noted that these investigators focused on the relationship between post-pubescent junior athletic experiences and senior level performance and had a limited ability to predict success. Given all the changes that occur during puberty, even less predictive power can be expected when assessing prepubescent success.
The study by Brouwers et al. (2009) supports older studies on early sport specialization that were conducted in the former Soviet Union, which extensively practiced the early identification of athletes for a single sport. Barynina and Vaitsekhovski (1992) reported that swimmers who specialized at a later age advanced at a greater rate than swimmers who specialized early. Similarly, Bompa (1995) cited several Soviet studies that showed that early sport specialization did not lead to the performance advantages people thought; in fact, these studies found an advantage to early sport diversification.
Early specialization has often been practiced in tennis. In the 1990s, female tennis players were turning professional at very young ages, and major concerns were voiced about stress, injuries, exploitation, and burnout. To ensure the safety of their players, the Women's Tennis Association Tour (WTA) consulted with experts and instituted an age-eligibility rule that limited the amount of play for the youngest participants, with amounts of tournament play increasing with age.
In 2004 the WTA evaluated the success of the rule in ensuring the psychological and physical health of players over its 10 years of existence (Otis et al., 2006). This study included surveys, statistical analyses of data on players' careers, and expert interviews. The findings supported the effectiveness of the rule; more than 75 percent of over 600 survey respondents supported the principles of the rule, and 90 percent indicated a need for it. Furthermore, stress was shown to be reduced, players increased their career length by 43 percent, and premature retirements (players leaving the tour before age 21) declined from seven percent before the rule to less than one percent after its initiation. While causal conclusions cannot be drawn from this type of study, the results certainly demonstrate that delaying intense competition appears to counteract the negative effects of early youth-sport competition and protects the health of players while strengthening the game at the professional level.
While these recent studies are certainly encouraging, two questions seem paramount for sport and exercise psychologists to examine. First, why do parents allow or encourage their children to specialize in a single sport at an early age? And what are the benefits and detriments of early sport specialization? Although specific lines of research have not been conducted on these questions, isolated studies, related literature, and professional practice knowledge can help to formulate responses to them.
Why Youths Specialize and Parents Encourage Specialization at an Early Age
A number of factors are thought to influence early sport specialization (table 1). For example, Ericsson (1996) contended that to develop athletic expertise, young people should engage in 10 years of deliberate practice. Ericsson also suggested there are advantages to deliberate practice at an earlier age. Thus, many coaches and parents feel that the best way to develop elite athletes is to start them young and engage them in specialized training.
Stories of highly successful athletes (e.g., Tiger Woods) starting their sport participation at an early age have been available to the public for some time and serve as models for parents who want their children to be highly successful in sport. The media's focus on stories about elite athletes who started sport participation at an early age contributes to the belief that early sport specialization is needed; seldom are stories presented on young people who started early and were unsuccessful at reaching the elite level. In addition, events like the Little League World Series have received increased national television air time over the past three decades, which further increases the desire of parents, coaches, and those running youth sports to replicate such events and provide intense training to ensure success in these competitions. Finally, as the popularity of sport specialization increases, parents whose children are not specializing often fear that their child is falling behind their peers who begin to specialize at an early age. Hence, hesitant parents allow their children to specialize when normally they would not.
Gould and Carson (2004) contended that a failure to disseminate sport science information to parents and coaches has led many to believe certain myths associated with athletic talent development. These myths include practices such as the requirement to start early if a child is going to obtain a college athletic scholarship, the belief that early sport success predicts success as an adult athlete, and the notion that multisport participation is not a productive method of producing athletic talent.
Table 1. Why Youths Specialize and Parents Encourage Sport Specialization at an Early Age
* Belief that specialization is needed to develop expertise
* Stories of elite athletes who started early
* Better coaches work with more talented players
* To keep up with the competition (fear of falling behind)
* Myths associated with athletic talent development
* Parents' commitment to allowing children to become all they are capable of being
* Parents judging their parenting self-worth based on their child's achievements
* Pressure from coaches
* High parental expectations
* Encouragement from college recruiters
* Societal emphasis on specialization
* Athlete's desire to participate in championships
Lastly, as presented in an earlier article in this feature, Coakley (2006, 2010) argues that today's parents often become over-involved in their child's sport experience and encourage practices like early sport specialization because good parenting has become associated with the achievements of children. In short, parenting worth is tied to the success of one's children, and since sport is a highly visible and popular endeavor that provides objective measures of success, parents feel the need to invest tremendous amounts of time and money to support their young athletes' early sport specialization.
There is clearly a need to better disseminate sport science research and best practice information to parents and coaches. Parents can make good decisions about the appropriateness of early sport specialization only if they are aware of the evidence supporting and contradicting the practice.
Benefits and Detriments of Early Sport Specialization
A number of authors (e.g., Donnelly, Caspersen, Sergeant, & Steenhof, 1993; Ewing, Laskey, & Munk, 2008; Hill & Simons, 1989; Wiersma, 2000) have discussed the benefits and detriments of sport specialization and intense sport involvement for youths (table 2). The benefits of early specialization often include better coaching and skill instruction, because the most experienced coaches usually work with players who specialize. It is also argued that the extra hours of deliberate practice enhance skill acquisition and contribute to the estimated 10,000 hours needed to become highly competent in a given sport. Additionally, due to the time demands inherent to these programs, they are thought to improve time management. It has also been suggested that early specialization and intense involvement in sport is a productive use of children's discretionary time. Lastly, proponents argue that children simply enjoy developing their talents. Of course, it can also be argued that involvement in multiple sports may lead to some of these benefits (e.g., positive use of discretionary time, better time management).
Table 2. The Benefits and Detriments of Early Sport Specialization
* Better coaching and skill instruction
* Enhanced skill acquisition through deliberate practice accumulation
* Improved time management
* Structured use of time in a productive way
* Enjoyment of sport and talent development
* Time demands
* Burnout and motivation loss
* Increased stress and pressure
* Social isolation
* Lost childhood
* Premature identity foreclosure
In contrast, critics of early sport specialization and intense sport training for children suggest that the financial costs and time demands required by these programs do not justify the results, since only a very small percentage of children ever become elite athletes. It is also argued that increased stress and burnout are associated with early sport specialization. In addition to the Stracchan et al. (2009) study, Gould and colleagues (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, Loehr, 1996, 1997; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996) found that a concerning number of young athletes involved in a single sport experience burnout and increased stress. Another concern with sport specialization at an early age is social isolation, because involvement in these programs separates young athletes from peers and, in turn, interferes with normal identity development. Finally, the critics argue that the time required for early sport specialization often leads to a lost childhood, scarring the child for life.
Unfortunately, most of the conclusions about the benefits and detriments of sport specialization are based on general youth-sport literature about intense competition for children (versus specialization studies), or survey assessments of athletic administrators and coaches. Few direct comparisons have been made between children who specialize and children who play multiple sports.
Best Practice Guidelines
It is unfortunate that not enough research has been conducted to draw final conclusions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of early youth sport specialization. The studies that have been conducted clearly show that early sport specialization is no guarantee for later sport success and, while it may have some benefits, a number of psychological problems may accompany it (e.g., increased stress, later burnout, interference with normal child development). Until more evidence is accumulated, it is best for parents and coaches to take a more measured, conservative approach that encourages involvement in multiple sports and waits until the age of 14 or 15 to think about single sport specialization (Balyi, 2001).
Parents and coaches would also do well to heed the guidelines devised by the International Society for Sport Psychology (Cote, Lidor, & Hackford, 2009). Specifically, they should encourage youths to sample a number of different sports, because doing so has not been shown to hinder elite sport participation in sports where peak performance is reached after maturation. Initial evidence also suggests that early sport sampling is linked to a longer sport career and provides a range of experiences, coaches, and contexts that allow participants to maximize positive development experiences that allow them to discover their talents. Cote and colleagues (2009) also contend that high amounts of deliberate play (versus practice) during the early years of sport involvement build a solid foundation of intrinsic motivation through involvement in activities that are enjoyable and promote intrinsic regulation. Deliberate play can be defined as developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment without the specific intent of improving performance (Berry, Abernethy, & Cote, 2008). Deliberate play also helps to develop a range of motor and cognitive experiences that children can ultimately bring to their primary sport. It is further contended that, around the age of 13, young people should have the choice to specialize or not to specialize and continue multisport participation. By age 16 a young person has developed enough psychologically, physically, cognitively, motorically, and socially to invest the tremendous amount of effort needed to take part in highly specialized training in a single sport.
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Daniel Gould (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, MI.
Photo: Children may be less able to cope with the psychological pressures of early sport specialization.
Photo [c] iStockphoto/Jane…
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Publication information: Article title: Early Sport Specialization: A Psychological Perspective: Early Specialization Does Not Guarantee Later Sport Success. Contributors: Gould, Daniel - Author. Journal title: JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance. Volume: 81. Issue: 8 Publication date: October 2010. Page number: 33+. © 2009 American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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