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). …