Specialization in Youth Sport: What Coaches Should Tell Parents

By Bodey, Kimberly J.; Judge, Lawrence W. et al. | Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Specialization in Youth Sport: What Coaches Should Tell Parents


Bodey, Kimberly J., Judge, Lawrence W., Hoover, Jonathan V., Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators


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We live in the age of the performance ethic. Youth sport, a highly visible and valued activity in communities across the nation, is a proving ground for children and parents alike. Fun sometimes equates to being a better athlete. The sport experience is assessed in terms of enhanced technical skill development and competitive ranking (Coakley, 2009). Athletes are challenged to show their potential early because opportunities to gain access to the "pipeline" become more elusive with time. Parents are called to prove their worth because "good parents" invest to guarantee their children's future. Sure enough, sooner or later, the coach comes face to face with the question, Should my child specialize?

The wise coach knows this is a difficult question. Yet, the coach is in a unique position to share insight and help parents reflect on a variety of related factors. Therefore, the aim of this article is to provide coaches with talking points when parents ask for advice.

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What Is Sport Specialization?

Sport specialization is an approach to athletic development that emphasizes focused training in a single sport on a year-round basis (McPhail & Kirk, 2006; Wiersma, 2000). The 10-Year Rule (Simon & Chase, 1973) and Power Law of Practice (Newell & Rosenbloom, 1981) are often cited as necessary for elite performance. Essentially, 10 years of committed training are needed to accrue the competencies required to become an expert, and learning occurs at a rapid rate at the onset of practice but decreases with time as practice continues. Ericsson (1996) suggested that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice," which coincides with biological and cognitive maturation, was needed to achieve expert status. An early start with focused training was essential, and there is a point at which late beginners would not be able to match peers who began specialized training earlier (Ericsson, 1996).

Sport diversification is an alternative approach to athletic development. This approach suggests athletic development is optimized when athletes are exposed to a generalized training regimen in which they "sample" a variety of sports (McPhail & Kirk, 2006). Many sports rely on generalized physical training, basic motor skills, and common tactical strategies, which can transfer to other sports (Brylinsky, 2010). Sport involvement focused on fun, enjoyment, and competence contributes to intrinsic motivation and persistence essential for sport expertise.

The relative desirability of specialization depends on the sport. Certain sports (e.g., gymnastics, diving, and figure skating) include complex artistic or acrobatic maneuvers that must be developed prior to maturation--there is evidence that maneuvers cannot be fully mastered after maturation (Judge & Gilreath, 2009). Alternatively, in "adult peak" (late specialization) sports (e.g., baseball, basketball, and track and field), specialization in childhood is not an essential antecedent for exceptional sport performance as an adult (Hill, 1993).

Recommendation: Coaches should begin by explaining the difference between sport specialization and sport diversification. Next, talk about the appropriateness of specialization given a particular sport type.

Physiological, Psychological, and Social Considerations

Beyond determining whether specialization is appropriate based on sport type, parents must also think about the physiological, psychological, and social implications of sport specialization.

Physiological implications

Little research exists to document the physiological effects of highly specialized, sport-specific training compared with diversified sport training. Considering the research that does exist, there is little direct evidence to suggest the endocrine, muscular, nervous, and cardiovascular systems benefit from early specialization (Kaleth & Mikesky, 2010). …

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