When Should Young Athletes Specialize in One Sport?

March 16, 2004 10:36 AM

By Jim Brown, Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

Specializing in one sport versus participating in two or more sports is a controversial topic. There are lots of opinions, but very little research. However, Dr. Jean Cote of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, has made a significant contribution to this area of sports performance in his study of elite Canadian athletes.

Dr. Cote set out to determine the influence of the family in the development of talented athletes. Along the way, he discovered that there are three stages of sport participation that fit the athletes (world class tennis players and rowers) in his study. Cote’s findings have been used to establish training models in other countries.

Sampling Years (6-13)
he first stage of sports participation occurred roughly between the ages of six and 13, when the emphasis was on fun and excitement. The parents were responsible for getting their children involved and allowing them to sample a wide range of activities. All of the families in the study considered participation in more than one sport an important element. All children in the same family were offered the same opportunities to get involved in sports, and all of the parents recognized a "gift" in the child-athlete that led to positive reinforcement of their child's efforts.

Specializing Years (13-15)
During the second phase, the specializing years between 13 and 15, there was a focus on one or two sports. Fun and excitement remained the central elements of the experience. Sport-specific skill development and practice time emerged as important characteristics. A balance between practice and play activities was maintained. All of the families considered school achievement more important than achievement in sport.

But the parents began to take measures to facilitate the gifted athlete's training and competition schedule. They did not expect their child to work part-time during this period and they reduced the importance of other social demands by allowing concentration just on schoolwork and sports. The families found the necessary financial resources by making sacrifices in their own social lives. During this period, the parents developed a growing interest in their child's support. Older brothers and sisters acted as work ethic and role models for the athlete. The siblings cooperated to create an environment that made it possible for the elite athlete to develop his or her sports skills.

Investment Years (15-17)
After the age of 15, there was a commitment of the athlete and the family to achieve elite status in one sport. The level of commitment was exhibited by a tremendous amount of practice time that paid dividends and took a toll on family members at the same time.
The number of "play activities" of the athlete was either eliminated or greatly reduced. The parents showed an even greater interest in the child-athlete's support. They helped their children deal with setbacks, such as injuries, scheduling, and schoolwork that hindered training. It is notable that the parents demonstrated different behaviors toward each of their children. In some cases, siblings showed bitterness or jealously toward the athlete's achievement.

Perfection Years (18 )
Because all three of these stages occur before the age of 18, Cote says that a fourth stage exists. He calls it a "perfection" or "performance" stage that is marked by the maintenance and perfection of skills.

While the Canadian families represent a rather middle-of-the-road approach to stages of development, the developmental stages vary widely in both directions in the United States and other countries. The trend in the U.S. appears to be for parents to encourage early specialization, sometimes before the age of ten. But expert opinion is overwhelmingly in support of the "sampling years" demonstrated by the Canadian athletes. Randy Hill, a sport physiologist and research assistant for the United States Olympic Committee, reflects that position. "The world-wide common denominator for reaching elite status is multi-lateral development — putting young children in as many different sports as possible. But the U.S. is the worst country in the world in this respect. Parents and coaches force children to specialize too early. What they should be doing is working on things like agility, coordination, balance, and speed that will help them develop them as athletes. We shouldn't ask them to specialize until after sexual maturity when their bodies normalize."

Waiting to specialize appears to favor the development of carry-over skills. A former college soccer player and now an NCAA Division I coach said that playing basketball and running cross-country helped her develop skills and discipline that she would not have had by playing soccer only at an early age. A well-regarded Indiana club swim coach requires participation in a second sport. An NCAA Division I volleyball coach says his best players all start in other sports.

Based on Cote’s research and the models used in most other developed countries, there is a stronger argument for playing two or more sports during the developmental years than in concentrating on one sport. Whether the United States follows the lead of other countries remains to be seen. At this point, it’s doubtful.

[This article is a summary of information presented in Sports Talent: How to Identify and Develop Outstanding Athletes.]

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
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