In the first installment of this two-part blog we looked at the concept of diversification – where children are encouraged to sample a wide range of sports before selecting a single sport in which to specialise at around the age of 15 or 16. The first blog highlighted that many of the skills learned from a wider range of sports are transferrable – from physical to conceptual skills – and that diversification can increase confidence and make sure that children don’t lose interest or burnout at a young age.
In this second blog we are considering the idea of specialisation at an early age – where children are encouraged to choose one sport around the age of 4 or 5 and focus on elite performance in that sport from that age onwards. This concept is predominantly motivated by the idea that to succeed at a sport means putting in the practice hours and to do that children need to start young. Tiger Woods is often produced as the poster child for specialisation, as he started playing golf at an incredibly young age – even appearing on the Mike Douglas Show aged 2 wielding a golf club.
The ‘Ericsson argument’ supports the idea of specialisation – this was a study of violinists that concluded that 10,000 hours were required for a violinist to be outstanding, 8,000 hours to be good and 4,000 hours to be normal. Whilst Ericsson’s research related to musical skill, it is often used as the standard in sport and with those kinds of figures it’s clear that it’s necessary to start young. As long as the hours spent practicing are ‘good’ practice, where the child is fully engaged with the sport, focused and competing, rather than wanting to be elsewhere, the early start can really pay off.
Becoming skilled at a sport at a young age can produce a high degree of confidence in children. It can provide them with an early feeling of self worth that lasts and a strong sense of achievement, as well as making them more widely recognised for their skills and more likely to be selected for teams or for scholarship programs. It is also a particularly appropriate approach for certain sports where the peak for the athlete is around puberty – for example gymnastics or ice skating where elite performance is expected around the ages of 12 – 15.
In terms of the downsides of early specialisation, these revolve mainly around the mental and physical effects of such intense training so young. Child athletes who train intensely in one sport often don’t have the physical range to then move on to another, which means there is greater potential for injury if another sport is attempted and that a career can end very young. This can result in an enormous amount of pressure on the child, particularly if parents have invested large amounts of time and money in training and the time commitment required for the training can mean that children are not well socialised when they reach adulthood.
When it comes to choosing between diversification and specialisation, there are clearly positives and negatives for each one. However, there are ways of mitigating the negatives to make sure that either one works for your child and lets face it either route is going to be fun and bring a sense of achievement.
Activate Sport offers both single specialised and multi sport diversified camps for kids that encourage the serious learning elements of sport, as well as the fun side. From rugby focused academies, to those that take in a wide range of different sporting elements, we have plenty of options for all abilities and ages – see our website for details.