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What if we are wrong about early specialisation?

5 Aug 2015

What about that Jordan Speith? 21 years old, 2 time major winner and within a whisker of 3 in a row. What's the secret? As this interesting article from the Titleist Performance Institute suggests the answer could be down to him playing a lot of different sports and being an all round athlete. 

 

Ah yes, but what about Rory? Equally skilled, also a multiple major winner in his early 20s. We have all seen the images of him chipping a ball into a washing machine aged 4. He won the World Junior Golf Championships at aged 10 and has been on a path to golfing super stardon from a very young age. His secret? Start early and stay focussed it seems. .

I see a lot of content being generated these days which I would describe as being 'anti early specialisation'. 

 

Some examples...

 

John O'Sullivan makes some brilliant arguments on his blog over at www.changingthegameproject.com

 

This post by Elsbeth Vaino has some interesting observations in it. 

 

The blog for sporting mothers called 'Mom's team' is equally emphatic and lists a number of academic studies that challenge the early specialisation world. 

 

The IOC recently published a consensus statement on youth athletic development which emphasises this point most emphatically when it states; 

 

"In contrast to premature emphasis on a single sport, research suggests that youth should avoid early sport specialisation, as diverse athletic exposure and sport sampling enhance motor development and athletic capacity, reduce injury risk and increase the opportunity for a child to discover the sport(s) that he/she will enjoy and possibly excel..."

 

Here is a link to a BJSM Podcast on this subject in case you prefer listening than more reading

 

Having studied this area for a while it is clear that there is definitely a wealth of evidence that supports this position and I would say that I am definitely in that camp myself. My son and daughter are experienceing a wide range of sports and most weekends are spent driving them from one thing to the next. 

 

In contrast, every week I see parents who have children aged 7 that are training in football (soccer) 4 times per week!  They have a 3-4 week break that they call the 'off season'. I see these same parents leaving tennis coaching 15 minutes early during the  summer so that they "aren't late for football training".

 

Every day I will read articles that talk about the rising costs of childrens sports and how really young kids are being sold a dream of making it and parents are buying it for fear of not giving their children the best opportunity. 

 

It all just seems inuitively wrong to me.  

 

But...

 

I have a thought that has been rattling around inside my head for a long time and I can't seem to shake it. 

 

What if I am wrong?

 

I have come to learn that the things that we seem to intuitively understand are probably the things that we should explore and examine the most. 

 

As far as I am aware there is no study that has shown conclusively that early specialisation is a sure fire way to stop a player achieving excellence. 

 

Most of the evidence that I have read over the years suggests that there is a higher incidence of injury and burnout amongst early specialisers and there is also a suggestion that early specialisers can be deficient athletically but nothing  to my knowledge actually provides conclusive evidence that early specialisation doesn't work. 

 

One of the reasons for this is that it is very hard and very expensive to conduct studies that could give us better evidence that one path is more effective than the other. All of the evidence so far is either based on retrospective accounts from elite athletes or is based on small cohort studies that have so many confounding variables that it is difficult to draw any hard conclusions. 

 

That said the pure weight of the scientific literature is pretty compelling.

 

That said...

 

At one time the weight of scientific consensus agreed tha saturated fat was a major cause of heart desease and yet a number of studies have begun to cast a seriious shadow of doubt over that theory (Gary Taubes brilliant book 'Why we get fat' provides an extremely compelling argument in this regard). 

 

Only recently we discovered that stretching before exercise isn't all that good for you and can actually increase the chances of injury rather than deminish it. 

 

The more I study the emerging fields of genetics, epigenetics and neuroscience the more I am beginning to be convince d that it is very hard to be prescriptive about these kinds of things...it is very personal.

 

Although the prevailing thinking suggests that early specialisation is a bad thing I wonder if that applies to everyone.

 

Maybe some kids need to specialise early to help them achieve their goals. Maybe elite sports performers that are wired with 'the rage to master' have an almost compulsive desire to perfect a specific  movement pattern or skill that they are almost 'hardwired to specialise'. 

 

Will we be able to do tests in the near future that help us diagnose which path to follow? 

 

Equally are all sports the same? 

 

Much is said about certain sports being early specialisation such as gymnastics and swimming (although I am highly sceptical about this assertion) so could this not apply to other sports as well where there is such a level of complexity that to become genuienley elite a player has to start at an early age or they will not achieve the required level until after their physical peak? 

 

Have some sports become so distorted by professionalism that the endless 'race to the bottom' in search of the next bright young wonderkid has meant that there just isn't any other choice if a player has dreams of becoming world class? 

 

I'm still in the late specialisation camp. If that means that i am somehow harming my children's chances of achieving their potential then so be it. For me it is a straightforward decision - the potential risks still outweigh the possibles advantages, 

 

I am going to keep an open mind though...

 

As always, thoughts really welcome. Drop me a line here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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