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When to specialise in sport - the debate rages on (sigh)

In the excellent 'The Talent Code' Blog, Daniel Coyle posted the following passage discussing the potential pitfalls of kids specialising early in sports...

"In the glossy heart of the 1980s, in the dimly lit halls of East Anchorage High School there walked a god. He was rangy, blond, and bore the cinematically perfect name of Trace Savage. And Trace Savage was awesome. (Just say it out loud: Trace Savage.)

Trace Savage was awesome partly because he was cool, partly because he was nice, but mostly because he was the best all-around athlete any of us had ever seen: quarterback of the football team, starting forward on the basketball team, and track star. He was living our American sports dream, and the dream of everyone we knew. Then, in the space of a few years, that dream changed. Maybe it was the rise of superfocused prodigies like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters. Maybe it was the rise of parenting as a competitive sport. Maybe it was the ESPN-ification of youth sports, which lost its community base and morphed into a free-market bazaar of travel teams, trophies, and tournaments, with each kid (read: parent) seeking the holy grail of success: the college scholarship. By the time the mid-nineties rolled around Trace Savage had vanished from the landscape like the white rhino. In his place stood a different species: the specialists. Every sport became a highly organized year-round enterprise: indoor soccer in winter, hockey in summer, baseball all year round. Suddenly kids had to choose before they turned 10 or so, or risk falling behind the pack. The logic seems straightforward: if you want to be good at a sport, you should play intensively year-round. It makes perfect sense. It was also, in retrospect, a perfectly bad idea. While early specialization works for a lucky few, an increasingly large wave of research has provided proof that early specialization doesn’t work so well for the rest of us. Let us count the ways:

  • 1) early specialization increases the chance of injuries.

  • 2) early specialization creates worse overall athletes (more evidence here).

  • 3) early specialization makes kids less likely to participate in sports as adults.

  • 4) early specialization creates a falsely high barrier to participation, eliminating kids who might otherwise succeed in a more open system.

I think the bigger point is this: when it comes to athletic skills, we are natural omnivores. Our bodies and brains are built to grow through variety of activities, not just one.Think about what happens when you play multiple sports. You develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength. You cross-train skills from one sport to another.It is not a coincidence that many top performers were multiple-sport kids growing up. Roger Federer played soccer until 12; Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant did the same. The reason they possess such brilliant footwork and vision is because they built those skills, over time, by being omnivorous.Most important, multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn. They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process.I’d also argue that multi-sport kids have a better chance to stay emotionally healthy, because they’re free of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket pressure that goes with specialization — a pressure that can lead unhealthy patterns when it comes to relationships and emotional stability. (See: Woods, Tiger.) They are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.So the real question is, what do you do? How do you nurture a Trace Savage in a Tiger Woods world? Here are three useful approaches, courtesy of Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport, who’s written widely on the subject.

  • Delay: wait as long as possible before choosing a single sport to pursue. It varies according to sport, but research puts the ideal age for specialization around the early teenage years. (That doesn’t mean you start at that age, of course, but rather that you start getting serious.)

  • Diversify: embrace all possibilities to broaden skills. Experiment and cross train.

  • Co-operate: seek ways to build connections between the silos of individual sports, so that families are not forced to choose one over the other too soon.

I’d add one more word: Connect. One of the main reason specialization is hard to resist is the parental peer-pressure that comes with joining any “elite” team. When every other family on the team is skipping school to travel to that “prestigious” out-of-state tournament, it’s awfully hard to say no. So I’d suggest seeking out other parents, kids, and coaches who share the multi-sport view, and working together to create fun, homegrown, omnivorous alternatives."

This post cause a massive ammount of debate in the comments area and I put forward my own view (as you might have guessed I would) I thought I would share it here.

For me...this is actually a moral argument as it raises questions that relate to the best way for us to bring up our children. Some think that they need to provide opportunity and put investment into their children from an early age to give their kids the best chance in life. Others are fearful that this approach will have the opposite effect in the long run as a generation of 'pushy parents' sees a generation of kids fall out of love with a sport that they have been doing for too long.

Within rugby we have researched this area as we have a major problem with kids leaving the sport between the ages of 16 and 24 and we have discovered that the earlier kids start playing the more likely they are to drop out. We also discovered that the main reasons for drop out relate to burnout due to boredom or the attraction of other sport which suggest to us that the varied diet of sport for as late as possible is very important. We are working very hard to ensure that our talent selection systems are now starting much later (i.e. post maturation) so that we keep windows open to kids who have great athletic ability and drop out of other sports. From our perspective we hope the other sports keep going with their early specialisation models as we may well benefit long term!

Much of the problem stems from the fact that kid's sport has become big business. The weight of evidence in support of the late specialisation model (see this link for some more is pretty heavy and yet people are still finding spurious arguments in support of it...why...because their livelihoods depend on it!

The problem is that every time we get an elite star that came from a early specialised background that this is presented as the case for this model, the media love to report this and it then takes on a bit of a folk following as a story. What nobody will consider is the 100's of kids that did the same but didn't make it and dropped out. It comes down to a straight trade off...the odd elite star and the risk of large scale drop out or a healthy sport full of lifelong participants and the promise of more elite stars as a happy by product.

The challenge for sports administrators is that we try to use research and logic to strengthen our argument but we are fighting against a powerful triumvirate of the hard line opinions of a commercial industry fueled by parents who are emotionally attached to the futures of their children which is in turn powered by the media's delight in a romantic story of the 'boy or girl done good' by trying hard from early childhood.

I am fearful that the only way that this super tanker can be turned around will be be when it is too late....

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