The Path to Elite Levels

Parents and athletes should do their research on specialization in regard to their specific sport.

By: Sebastian Giraldo

I usually do not go through a week without having an in-depth conversation about sport specialization. Sport specialization is the idea that an athlete does training in one specific sport while excluding others. Most experts agree that specialization is a necessary step in achieving elite levels, but there is much debate about when the proper time is to specialize.

In the age of under-researched Facebook and Twitter articles, information on specialization has become muddled. Plenty of information is available, but concepts and recommendations are too often presented in isolation from main research findings. Here are key concepts to keep in mind when discussing specialization in youth sports.

1. Dangers of early specialization
There are negative outcomes associated with early sport specialization, including higher rates of injury, stress and early burnout. We must remember that youth sport is not adult sport, and most stages of youth development do not resemble the training and life of an older elite athlete.

Youth athletes should be consistently and carefully monitored to see how they respond to sport training. A sport program in tune with understanding proper athlete development can counter many of the negative outcomes of early specialization.

2. Specialization does not have to mean excluding other activities
Just because your child trains and plays one sport does not mean your child is going to necessarily experience more injury, stress or burnout. A child who plays one sport can still participate in other activities. Simply put, your child can play basketball without joining a youth league. Children should be encouraged to find opportunities to play in informal sport settings.

Many elite soccer players enter formal soccer systems in their teenage years, but often, their background profile is that of an active child who participated in many activities. Sport specialization is measured on a spectrum with no clear definition of what does and does not constitute specialization. The path to elite levels can be different for each athlete. Your child can receive the benefits of playing different sports without participating in a formal youth league.

3. One rule does not fit all
In most sports, early diversification (the idea of playing multiple sports during early development years) has been shown to more likely lead to success than early specialization. Studies in basketball and field hockey have shown that the more activities athletes practiced and experienced in early years, the less sport-specific practice is necessary to achieve expertise in their sport. However, sports such as female gymnastics require higher levels of specialization during early years to achieve success because the point of peak performance is before puberty.

4. The idea of early engagement
While early specialization might not be vital to developing into an elite athlete in some sports, new research trends indicate that early engagement can be a major predictor of success. Research into the differences between soccer players who progress to professional levels and those who do not indicate that the elite players accumulated more time playing soccer in unstructured settings in early years. This is important in a culture where kids are not playing soccer outside of club practices and games. The research shows that you need to play a lot of soccer early on to develop into an elite player. This holds true for many sports.

5. There is probably a “right time” for specializing in a specific sport
There is a big push to let children explore different activities during their childhood, and this can be positive for physical, psychosocial and cognitive development. However, many parents translate this into: My children should play all the sports they are good at and then decide later. Of course parents and players should choose whatever their sport path is, but the reality for elite athletes is that specialization likely has to occur at some point.

Deliberate practice becomes essential for elite success in many sports such as soccer and basketball. This means repetitions of sport-specific skills that must be mastered for high-level performance. Steph Curry’s magical dribbling and smooth jumper are likely products of constant deliberate practice. Between 13 and 16 years, most athletes should begin to specialize in the sport where they want to attain expert status.

A common problem we confront in elite training is that teenagers are simultaneously participating in multiple organized activities such as soccer, cheerleading and track. Due to limited resources (including time), the athlete does not put in the amount of deliberate practice necessary to achieve elite status. For sports such as soccer, where technical skill mastery is necessary for success at high levels, these specializing years are crucial. During specializing (13-16) and investment (16-18) years, you begin to see separation in ability between top athletes. The athletes who train effectively, and more often, usually begin to rise to the top.

Parents and athletes should do their research on specialization in regard to their specific sport. For example, in soccer, it seems that early engagement playing a lot of soccer in informal settings is necessary, followed by a transition to specialization between 13 and 16 years of age. While most sports require specialization at some point, intense training in a single sport should be delayed until adolescence to optimize success and limit negative outcomes.

Specialization is a very personal decision, and one that should involve research and discussion. Make a decision with your children that aligns with his or her long-term goals in a specific sport.

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