Specialisation case study
This is Tim.
Tim wants to be a professional football player. His parents take him to every training session, buy him all the new gear and pay for the top coaches to develop his football skills in hopes that it will improve his chances of success.
When Tim’s parents take him out, they are always boasting to their friends about how he is going to be a professional football player. By the ripe age of 10, Tim is never seen out of a football kit. He pretends his bike is a Range Rover and even rocks the Jack Grealish hair band at school – as you can see, he looks good.
Tim’s best friend, Rob, also plays football but is encouraged by his teachers and parents to play rugby and cricket as well. He also dabbles in a bit of casual swimming on the weekends with his other friends. Rob’s support network knows that intensive training, coupled with inadequate strength and conditioning provision and nutrition, is a recipe for disaster (see what I did there?). In addition, they know that focusing on one sport may negate the many benefits associated with multi-sport participation.
Fast forward six years, Tim and Rob are both playing on the same team at the same level, and their coaches are thinking about who is going to progress through the system.
Tim is really good, but keeps picking up small injuries throughout the season and has a limited repertoire of skills.
Rob, on the other hand, is robust and is socially more rounded from participating in other sports (e.g., rugby). Rob is an example of a late-specialisation athlete who has focused on a sport a bit later on, allowing him to refine and hone his technique through a variety of activities.
Rob has been filling his toolbox with a variety of tools (i.e., movements and skill sets), whereas Tim has simply sharpened the one tool he has. Tim has fallen victim to the early specialisation conundrum, which impacts so many youths in various systems.
Some of the negative consequences of specialising too early in one sport have been briefly demonstrated above. Put simply, Tim has made football his identity.
Let’s go down a path where Tim isn’t selected for an elite team. To Tim, this may feel like a criticism of everything he stands for, and although that’s not the case, as a young athlete, it can certainly be hard to deal with. None of us enjoy the feeling of rejection.
Tim is also going through adolescence, where he will experience significant alterations in hormonal status, physical growth, and social and cognitive processes. Now he’s not just lost his identity (“I know Tim, that’s the guy who wants to be the footballer”), but is also going through one of the biggest physical, emotional, and cognitive transitions of his life (adolescence). What a tough time.
Remember those pesky little injuries Tim kept getting? Well, youth athletes who specialise early are more prone to growth-related injuries (e.g., Osgood Schlatter’s disease), fractures, rotator cuff injuries, and ACL injuries – which are more prevalent in females. These can all be classified as overuse injuries, which are mostly due to repeated physical stress from performing similar movement patterns over and over again. In addition to these injuries, Tim has missed some parts of his childhood, which has contributed to him feeling somewhat out of touch with his peers.
Tim, like many, faces a conundrum created by society’s desires for immediate gratification, opportunities for social recognition and scholarships, and most frequently, adults imposing their own dreams and wishes on their child.