What the kids have to say early sport specialisation

Your weekly research review

Tom Green

By Tom Green
December 18th, 2019 | 5 min read

Contents of Research Review

  1. Background & Objective
  2. What They Did
  3. What They Found
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. Reviewer’s Comments
  6. About the Reviewer

Background & Objective

Sport can be an incredibly fulfilling experience, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. In a society run by technological advancement, many still find comfort in participating in sport at all levels. Unfortunately, many children remain either inactive, or are “pushed” into participation. Voluminous and repetitive participation in sport can result in overuse injuries, burnout, and even dampened enjoyment. This study introduces the reader to a novel instrument to assess the driving factors behind participation, with an aim to reduce the negative connotations that accompany early sports specialisation.

What They Did

This study collected survey data from 235 athletes between the ages of 7-18 years old. The children were afforded a parent/coach-free opportunity to express their opinions in a survey. This survey was designed by an interdisciplinary team, consisting of orthopaedic surgeons, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and training academy staff. The survey consisted of two sections, and the data was analysed based on a 5-point Likert-type scale, as seen below.

Section 1 – Participants demographic data such as age, sex, injury history, and self-reported competence
Section 2 – 15 questions discussing factors influencing participation

What They Found

On average, players began to specialise in one sport at 8.1 ± 3.6 years, with 74% of these reportedly suffering a sports-related injury. To define the higher-tier of specialisation, players were asked questions regarding their participation. It was found that of the 74% of those who were classed as highly-specialised, spent 9 or more months of the year in one sport. Furthermore, players with an injury history were more likely to participate all-year round. These players were often told by a coach not to participate in other sports, though this study failed to dig deeper and reveal why this was their (the coach’s) opinion. Half of the children reported that sport was interfering with their academic success, but felt external pressures to participate (e.g. they had wishes to attend college); this was more common with older players.

Practical Takeaways

Despite our ever-growing knowledge of the need to provide rounded sporting experiences, youth sports specialisation is actually increasing. This study also found that specialisation was linked to injury, burnout, and dissatisfaction. As a result of this, it is important that children do not spend over 9 months focussing solely one sport to combat these issues. When designing sessions, it is important that children are both passengers and drivers on their learning journey. The attached podcast discusses Bernstein’s theory of ‘repetition without repetition’, which may prove valuable for children who are highly-plastic and can benefit from high-levels of variety in the learning journey.

In the instance of an injury, the authors of this research article suggest that coaches, players, and parents must understand the internal and external pressures that may have led to this injury. This should not be a blunt conversation, but a considered approach that dissects all of the psychosocial factors that may have contributed to the injury. Whilst it is important that we should value aspiration and drive to succeed, we must remind those in charge of any child that their developmental interests are at heart and excessive pressure may impact their chances of succeeding. As the reader, you may wish to use statistics to support a conversation. For example, in this research article, 97% of sports professionals accredited their success to early multi-sport development. This may help to defuse any tension and potentially educate the parent who may easily think that more practice will benefit their child to succeed in that sport.

Reviewer’s Comments

“Based on the numerous research articles published regarding early vs. late specialisation, it would seem fairly obvious that children should not specialise in only one sport. Providing a child with access to multiple-sports will support a child in developing multiple solutions to the unpredictable, and sometimes chaotic, nature of sport. For example, a child who develops the ability to rotate and dissociate between the upper- and lower-body in a sport such as tennis, may be able to transfer these skills to other sports. This could be further demonstrated by a player who has to rotate to catch the ball in Rugby, or time a run in football by looking over a shoulder.

To move forward as a discipline, it is important that coaches are continually empowering one another through education and challenging long-held notions regarding youth development. I strongly believe that when a child has fun and can develop their own solutions to coach-created problems (i.e. an obstacle or technical issue), they begin to learn from the journey and develop ownership and confidence, which can therefore develop them into a better person and athlete. Many of the benefits of sports participation have been discussed in the attached article link, but the development of the person should be emphasised alongside technical prowess in the early years. This will ensure that children enjoy sport and are therefore more likely to participate for many years to come.”

Want to learn more?
Then check these out…

Watch this video
Read this article
Listen to this podcast

The full study can be read here.

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    Tom Green

    Tom Green

    Tom Green is currently the Head of Athletic Development at St Peters RC High School in England. Tom has extensive experience in a range of sports at varied levels. He holds a BSc and MSc in Strength and Conditioning, is a qualified teacher, and sits on the UKSCA board for S&C in Schools.

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