Early or late specialisation? High-performance perspective.

wiped out at tennis There are a lot of speculations among sport scientists and coaches about the best way for developing high class athletes . Main tendency in coaching is starting a participation in sports and specialising in a chosen one as early as possible. In opposite, prevailing recommendations coming from sport scientists are diversification (participation in many sports) and enjoyable physical activities (Lloyd et al., 2015). Whereas these scientific recommendations are appropriate for child’s well-being and harmonious physical developing, are they applicable for achieving success in performance? In presented article, I deliberately pass over the moral aspect of this problem, which is about do we actually have a right to impose our choice (and our ambitions?) on our kids, and going to discuss only its practical application to high-performance sport.

What is better for high-level success: specialisation or diversification?

Children should be introduced to physical activity as early as possible. This facilitates their physical and mental development, as well as improves social skills and general well-being. Different question is, however, when they can start sport’s training in one, chosen sport (actually chosen for them by their parents), which means structured, controlled by adults, all-year practice, where the goal is to achieve a success in competition.

The main arguments in favour of early specialisation.

1. You need a lot of practice to be successful in contemporary sport. Highly cited 10 years-10000 hours rule (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-R?mer, 1993), though is oversimplification of athlete’s development process, however, reflects the need to work harder and better than your competitors. The earlier is your start, the more hours of practice you accumulate during your development years. Often, accumulated during adolescence practice differs between elite and non-elite performers (Starkes & Hodges, 1998; Ward, Hodges, Williams, & Starkes, 2007). However, should it necessary be one-sport practice? In contradiction to early specialisation necessity, G?llich et al. found that among 1500 German Olympic athletes early intensive practice in one sport had generally negative effect on probability of future success (G?llich & Emrich, 2006).

2. Early start very often is connected with earlier success hence it increases early starter’s chances of being picked up for further high performance training. This means that better coaches, facilities and funding become available for them. Probably early-starters will be better accustomed to competitive stress because competitions become usual routine for them from early age. However, in mentioned above study, juvenile success and involvement in intense youth development programme, implemented by sport’s governing bodies, were not always positively connected with the future achievements.

3. Starting early young athlete acquires necessary technical skills while his/her brain is still developing, thus allowing technical patterns to be more naturally integrated into brain’s structures.

Why diversification may be useful?

1. Fundamental motor skills (FMS) and agility

Though we are considering our abilities to run, to jump, to leap, to turn, to catch, to throw, to kick, etc., as natural, actually we were not born with these skills and sometime and somehow we learnt them. In the past, when children were more physically active, most of these abilities they  learnt during unstructured and non-controlled games with their peers. Some of them acquired such skills better than other due to inborn giftedness, nevertheless,  most kids were able do that. We realised that something is wrong only when humanity adapted more sedentary behaviour and young generation starts lacking physical activities. To our surprise, we found out that many children cannot do these basic movements and actually coaches have to teach that when kids start to play sports. Why do we need these skills? Well, because if young athlete is not good in FMS, then more complex movement patters, needed for sport, won’t be robust. It is like a house without solid basement. Another quality, which is necessary for many sports, is agility. This is an ability to perform a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity and/or direction in response to a stimulus (Sheppard & Young, 2006). I just want to add that such kinetic changes should be performed smoothly and efficiently in different, often unpredictable circumstances and in complex environment. You cannot completely predict and rehearse that in advance. Agility is based on FMS and requires variable and diverse training stimuli for its development. Both FMS and agility may be better developed in multi-sport environment (Fransen et al., 2012). Technical skills, which are not based on solid FMS platform and agility, are not strong and flexible enough and may “crack” under pressure.

2. It makes participation in sport more enjoyable and helps to prevent burnout in the future.

Raedeke defined burnout in Sport as “psychological syndrome of emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation”(Raedeke & Smith, 2001)

When kid participates in one sport exclusively from his/her early age, it may put an “uneven” physical and psychological pressure on him/her. Child may be bored with continuous routine, endless coaching instructions and demands and finally loses a joyfulness of sport’s involvement. However, it is just a part of the problem. The more serious issue is that young athlete, instead of developing wide sense of self as multidimensional person, starts to consider him/her exclusively as a professional athlete, without any other interests and responsibilities (Hill, 2013). This dangerous problem more likely may emerge in early specialisation situation when parents and coaches actually may facilitate it. Child becomes fully devoted to achieving success and perfectness. His/her self-esteem and self-realisation are entirely connected with the winning. However, after colliding with the high-level sport’s reality, young athlete suddenly or gradually realises that success is not guaranteed. After that he/she may develop sense of fear, hopelessness and despair. This is kind of vicious circle: young athlete pursues success so desperately that it becomes detrimental for performance and training.

3. Overuse injuries.

And the last but not the least problem which may arise from the early specialisation, is overuse injuries. These kinds of injuries may account for 45-54 % of all injuries (DiFiori et al., 2014). Although we have to admit that a high-level sport is not always good for the health, in coach’s interest from moral and high performance point of view is a developing an athlete who is well adapted to repeated overloading and is not predisposed to injuries. However, early specialisation puts significant load on the same muscle’s groups, ligaments and joints while underdevelop other. This may lead to the injuries (DiFiori, et al., 2014). Very often, “early specialisation coaches” ignore this danger and do not pay necessary attention to comprehensive physical conditioning. Multi-sport involvement naturally makes athlete better physically prepared and less susceptible to injuries when specialisation finally occurs (Paterno, Taylor-Haas, Myer, & Hewett, 2013).

Technique, FMS and agility’s demands may separate sports on early and late specialisation.

Scientific studies about early specialisation and diversification leave us with contradictory results. Especially this contradiction is evident when researches don’t take into account specificity of sport(s) they are talking about. In my opinion, general approach is not appropriate here. There are different groups of sports which demand different pathways for young athlete’s development. Of course, I am not alone in this conclusion. Most of the authors argue that early specialisation is inevitable in sports where peak performance comes before maturation (there is simply no time for other sports), I am suggesting that demands in technique, FMS, agility and decisions making should be taken into consideration as well.

Gymnastic, figure skating and diving are the sports where high level of technique is required however this technique generally always the same (some new elements has to be learned in advance, before competitions), it is performed always in the same conditions and other competitors cannot influence your technique’s execution. So basically, you just need to practice your exercise to perfectness, and after that, to avoid mistakes while performing it on competitions. I don’t mean that it is easy. Level of perfection and complexity, as well as psychological pressure, are so high that achieving a success is really difficult. However, I can argue that such sports like: gymnastic, figure skating, diving etc., don’t require high-developed agility. It may sound strange because athletes from these disciplines are to the greatest extent graceful, powerful and artistic, but such argument makes sense if we consider agility as a quality of dealing with new unpredictable circumstances. Due to fact that in mentioned sports circumstances always the same, you basically don’t need to develop ability to quickly evaluate environment and to adjust technique’s execution. In these sports athlete has to devote all his/her time to learning and polishing technical and artistic skills and developing physical qualities which are specific for performce. Probably it is better to start doing earlier and don’t spend precious training time on other sports. Especially if it is early peak performance sport. Support to this opinion comes from Law et al. study (Law, C?t?, & Ericsson, 2007). They found out that Olympic level rhythmic gymnasts participated in less other sports than their international level colleagues. However, they were more vulnerable to all side-effects of that early specialisation such as: poorer health, more injuries and less fun.

At the opposite end of the starting time scale are so called kilograms, centimetres and seconds sports. This group includes track and field events and weight lifting. Technique here is not so complicated compare to previous group, but physical qualities are of the great importance. You can develop these qualities in many different ways thus early specialisation is not necessary for these sports. It can be even detrimental because it places huge physical stress on immature athletes (Paterno, et al., 2013).

Combat sports is the group where some level of complexity in movements patterns is presented, though it is lower than in gymnastic–diving group. However, this technique has to be executed under direct physical pressure from an opponent who is actively trying to distract your performance. To perform under these circumstances athlete needs not only to have good physical conditions, such as strength, power and endurance, but highly developed cognitive and sensory skills (distance calculation, anticipation, reaction speed. etc.). Situation in fight is continuously changing hence fighter benefits from a good level of agility, though it absence may be to some extent compensated by physical strength and cognitive/sensory skills. Comprehensively developed fighter benefits from participation in sport games because abilities and actions needed there can be transfer to the fight. These are: quickness, endurance, balance, interception’s action, collision avoiding, and many others. My personal coaching experience supports the notion that good level fighters are generally good in game’s sports too. Moreover, inclusion of various sports can help to avoid boring routine in combat training and ease psychological pressure. All, mentioned above, lead us to conclusion that it can be possible to achieve success in combat sports even if you start late but have a solid sporting background, and it is beneficial for fighters to include few other sports in their training programme.

Separate group may be formed from the team game sports, where high level of technique is an obligation and direct contact with opponents is presented. This makes environment in such sports like: basketball, football and hockey very complex and changeable. Player has to deal with the ball/puck while keeping the balance,  changing speed and directions, avoiding/making contacts and evaluate complex situation on the pitch. Successful participation in these sports demands high level of agility, ability to make quick decisions and to be highly developed physically. In my opinion, practising these sports can develop athlete so comprehensively that there is no need and, due to demand in high-level technique, no time to participate in other sports. It doesn’t mean that training has not to include exercises and methods from other sports. What this actually means is that you can and should specialise in these sports as early as possible and nevertheless, (if your coaches give you good physical conditioning training) be comprehensively developed for achieving success. Support for my opinion comes from (Ford & Williams, 2012; Haugaasen, Toering, & Jordet, 2014) studies where were no difference found between successful and non-successful footballers regarding to how many other sports they practised in childhood. What distinguished them was an amount of football practice (structured and unstructured) accumulated during years of development. So in football, like in gymnastic-diving group but for different reason, it is probably better to spend sport’s practice hours in childhood on football.

Lawn tennis can be considered as one of the most debatable sports in regards to early specialisation. In my opinion,  agility and fundamental motor skills in tennis are in demand, but cannot be sufficiently developed if child just plays tennis. In tennis high level of technique is compulsory and significant amount of time has to be devoted to it. So, it is probably an argument in favour to start specialisation early. At the same time, opponent has a direct influence on your game by hitting the ball in different angles, velocities and spins. In addition, tennis surfaces are different, as well as weather conditions. All these make situations on a court variable and demand continues adjustments in the technique’s execution. Tennis player has to make his/her shots while running, jumping, stretching and turning. He/she has to be able to rapidly accelerate and decelerate from different body positions, to change directions and even to have some acrobatic skills. This demands good level of agility. Quick and correct decision’s making is of a great importance as well. Why we cannot develop this just practising tennis? Well, challenges for agility in tennis are more delicate and subtle compare to, for example, football and require rather “fine tuning” of movement skills than “massive application” of agility. However, before to refine something you need to have something to refine. Tennis training alone, probably, doesn’t allow developing fundamental and comprehensive motor skills which later will form the basis for “fine” agility. Tennis exercises mostly include pre-planned movements, standard technical combinations and physical drills. Whereas nobody can neglect importance of technique in tennis, tennis coaches sometimes even don’t realise that their students lack fundamental motor skills and agility. In kid’s tennis this insufficiency can be hidden behind artificially boosted superiority in technique and physical strength. Nevertheless, later this problem will take its toll.

Apologists of early specialisation in tennis may correctly point out that many tennis stars started as early as 4 years old. It is true. However, it would be worth to note that by specialisation we mean practising one chosen sport exclusively. Early specialisation is different from the early introduction. In latter, child learns basic technique and movements pattern in main sport in playful manner while, at the same time, is encouraged to participate in other sports and physical activities. This allows him/her not only to ease psychological workload, connected with the boring “special” drills, and possibly to avoid overuse injuries and burnout, but to be more comprehensively physically developed and agile. That eventually makes him/her better player. Such great players like Federer, Nadal and Murray continued to play other sports like, for example, football till their teen’s age. At present time, deficit in agility to some extent can be compensated by power and good technique even in adult’s tennis (especially in women’s tennis), but soon it will be impossible. New challenges and new generation of players are coming. Support to my opinion comes from many experts and governing bodies in tennis. For instance, Australian tennis federation though advocates introduction to tennis from 4 years old, however, supports the importance of exposure to variety of sports till the age of 12 ( http://www.unchainedfitness.com/articles/the-sports-science-of-tennis-ii-is-tennis-an-early-specialisation-sport). Tennis fitness guru Allistair McCaw suggests that 40-50% of training time till the age of 13 should be spending on other sports (http://www.tennisconsult.com/author/allistair-mccaw/ ). WTA (women tennis association) published a result that after it introduced a diverse model of young athlete’s development, level of drop-out decreased and high level athletes started competing longer (Otis et al., 2006).

Transferable sports and comprehensive physical conditioning training.

On the other hand, many coaches rightly complain that sometimes parents demand a progress while, at the same time, make their kids so busy with so many different activities that actually they have no time to train properly. Whereas comprehensive physical development is a compulsory for future achievements, to squander energy and time on too many sports is detrimental. Balance should be found here. Remember, we need a lot of practice in chosen sport. There is no need to participate in more than 2-3 additional sports. Even then, these sports should be “transferable”, which means developing skills that are needed for the main sport. Comprehensive physical conditioning training can help as well. It shouldn’t be too specialised in early ages. It shouldn’t be stuck to tennis court or football pitch exclusively. Nature provides us with the perfect environment for training. Go to the mountains, forest and beaches. It helps to develop athlete not only physically but psychologically as well. While keeping in mind the main sport, physical conditioning coaches have to develop wide and solid movement base, fine sensory skills and stress resistance. They have to bring up complete athletes.


How can we scientifically prove that one approach is better than another? Well, in our case, we can take adult athletes, retrospectively examine how they trained in childhood (early specialisation or diversity) and try to find correlation with their present achievements. Unfortunately, there are so many other variables, which can interact with each other and influence an outcome that we cannot be sure about our findings. Cause-effect relation is not clear as well. For example, maybe Nadal, Murray and Federer participated in other sports in childhood just because they are genuinely good athletes, and this participation doesn’t influence their tennis career. However, scientific data may help us to raise questions and to challenge old notions. There are mounting amount of facts in support that in many sports increasing specific practice in early childhood does not lead to success in the future. Of course, we cannot be naive and have to recognise that success in contemporary sport demands significant amount of practice. For accumulation this practice, children have to start participation in sport as early as possible. In some sports, where high level of technique’s execution in invariable environment is required and peak performance often comes before maturation, there is probably no other choice than concentrate exclusively on one sport from the early childhood. Perhaps that doesn’t make child happier and healthier, however it is a price for winning. Nevertheless, in many other sports such early specialisation, though may accelerate initial success, finally leads to underdeveloped athlete and provokes lack of agility, burnout, overuse injuries and ceasing participation in sport at all. Thus it may be detrimental, even if we cynically consider only a success as the main goal for our kids in sport (personally, I don’t). To avoid that, participation in 2-3 transferable sports and/or comprehensive physical conditioning training should be encouraged.


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