There is great debate around when specializing a child in a sport should occur. Most believe the earlier the better, but is that really best?
If you want your child to become a professional golfer, figure skater, or other high-performance athlete, when should they specialize in that one sport?
It’s a question that often generates heated discussion among coaches and sport parents. All too often, in most sports, children are pushed to specialize too early.
Too many coaches and parents push them to focus on one sport long before high school in the belief that they will miss out if they don’t. The thinking is that they need to “get ahead of the pack” by putting in the extra hours and staying away from other sports.
Meanwhile, research suggests that specializing too early probably prevents most kids from reaching their full potential in their sport. They might win the district championships for Grade 8 or Grade 10 basketball, but that will be their peak achievement. They won’t make the cut for the national team and go on to have success in their given sport internationally at age 19.
It seems counterintuitive. How could specialization reduce your success? It’s connected to physical literacy and the need to develop a wide range of physical, mental and emotional skills within sport. When researchers look at top athletes across a range of sports, the majority of them are distinguished by broad athletic ability from playing a variety of sports as children. This kind of broad athleticism doesn’t happen when kids specialize in one sport from an early age.
(Please note: We haven’t even mentioned the problem of overuse injuries to tendons, ligaments and bone growth plates due to premature specialization. There’s enough research on that subject to write a book. Premature specialization is also linked to kids dropping out of sports early.)
Is early specialization wrong for all sports? No. But research shows very few sports where it helps. Sports and activities such as gymnastics, figure skating, diving and dancing generally require early specialization. To reach the highest levels of competition, your child needs to start young and spend most of their time practising that sport or activity.
However, sports such as golf, hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball and tennis are late-specialization sports. If you want your child to have a chance to go to the highest levels in these activities, the evidence suggests they should also play other sports until at least age 14. This is called sampling or early diversification.
When you feel the urge to make your child specialize early, remember that Steve Nash didn’t even start playing basketball until he was 13 years old. Wayne Gretzky started hockey young, but he also played baseball, lacrosse and tennis into his teens.
The debate between early specialization and multi-sport participation among children is one of the many topics presented in the Long-Term Player Development Guide for Canadian golf. Find out more at golfcanada.ca/ltpd.