The question of whether or not children should play a range of different sports when they are young, or whether they should specialise from an early age is one that often troubles parents. It is also a conundrum that has been hotly debated in the sporting world, with athletes, trainers, and industry experts often coming down on different sides. In the next two blogs we will be looking at the advantages and disadvantages of diversification (playing lots of sports) as compared to specification (choosing one sport and training for it year round from an early age).
To begin with, let’s take a look at diversification (or ‘sampling’ or ‘delayed specialisation’). As you might guess from the name, diversification is essentially where a child samples a wide range of sports when young, before selecting one on which to focus to achieve elite performance. The process usually takes at least a couple of years, during which a child will normally try a variety of sports, narrowing the choice down to two or three and then finally choosing the sport to specialise in at around the age of 15 or 16.
There is a considerable amount of research that indicates that diversification is often the method of choice for some of the world’s best athletes and that those who opt for this route actually spend less hours participating in the chosen main sport before being selected for a national team. So, what is it about diversification that makes it effective?
Playing a wider range of sports allows a child to develop a broader spectrum of physical skills, many of which are transferrable from one sport to another, such as the ability to quickly go from being motionless to sprinting, which is useful in athletics, as well as games like tennis. There are also likeness between the movements in many sports and some broadly similar concepts allow for transfer of learned skills – for example the set up of a football pitch where the idea is to get the ball into the opposing team’s net, and a hockey pitch where the aim is the same but using a stick. Skills such as passing, anticipating the movements of an opponent and looking for an opportunity to put an object into a goal, or over a net, are also common to a wide range of sports.
In addition to encouraging transferrable skills, diversification can maintain an interest in sport in general, avoiding early burning out or giving up, and there is evidence that acquiring a wide range of skills in this way may actually speed up elite performance of a single sport when it is selected. Then there are the general life benefits – qualities such as tenacity, endurance, mental agility and strength are key to any sport, as well as to living a successful life in general, and acquiring the ability to understand and play more than one sport can also build confidence.
In terms of the disadvantages of diversification, these tend to be few. Most of the evidence points to the fact that this approach doesn’t prevent elite performance in athletes, which only leaves the logistics of getting a child to numerous training sessions, sports practices and games, as well as the cost.