Early specialization: A parent’s dilemma

We are proud to have Charlotte Downing (Doctoral researcher) as a guest author. We hope you will enjoy her text about early specialization.

What is early specialization?
Early specialization is defined as intensive training in a single sport, before age 12. Many organisations such as the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) suggest that intensive training from a young age can be harmful to physical and psychological health. Despite this, early specialization is relatively commonplace in youth sport.

When most parents hope for their child to have a long, happy and healthy career in sport, we question whether early specialization can be a part of that.

Who’s in the driving seat of early specialization?
Children are often introduced to sport by their parents. There are many reasons why parents initiate their child’s involvement in sport. For example, wanting their child to be physically active and providing opportunities for their child to socialise. However, it is also possible for parents to remember their own sport engagement fondly, and hope for their child to follow their sporting success. This is not necessarily problematic, as long as the child remains curious and shows enjoyment from their participation in sport. It is important for parents to refrain from putting pressure on a child to participate, or specialize, in a particular sport.

The process of early specialization isn’t necessarily always driven by parents, or coaches. For example, is it possible for a child to ask to do more and more training in one sport? Perhaps they love spending time at the tennis courts, and they are always asking friends and family to help them train. Of course, it’s important to avoid overtraining, but the driving force behind specialization has the potential to be determined by a child who simply loves their sport. Although this idea hasn’t yet been extensively examined by researchers. It is perhaps logical to think that specialization that is athlete driven has the potential to be less pressurizing than parental or coach driven specialization.

The blog post is about early specialization in sport, there it's appropriate to include a picture of kids kicking soccer balls
Photo by Lukas on Pexels

My child doesn’t want to try other activities!
Many researchers and organisations recommend a diversified approach to sport development. This means that a child should try and experience many different sports before settling into just one main activity.  But, we are all familiar with stories of children who are football or gymnastics crazy, showing little interest in activities outside of their one main sport. While it’s wonderful that you might have a passionate and driven child, it is also good to reflect on the risks of single-sport participation.

One of the most commonly discussed psychological risks of early specialization is lower enjoyment and increased dropout. It is suggested that some aspects of specialized training are less fun. For example, repeating a skill over and over until you master it, might not be fun for all young athletes. However, some athletes might enjoy this highly focused and technical aspect of their training. Fun and enjoyment is often reported to be beneficial for long term commitment and success in sport. So, as a parent it’s good to check in with your child to make sure sport is still a source of fun. If the environment is very outcome focused, or there is emphasis on competition, then this could be less enjoyable. However, parent-athlete communication is key to understanding what aspects of training a child may find most, or least, enjoyable.

It is also important to consider how varied the training is within the sport. For example, if a young athlete is training for multiple hours with just one coach, is always with the same group of peers, and always practices the same skills, this is highly specialized. On the other hand, an athlete could train with multiple coaches, multiple groups of peers, and practice many different skills or types of training. Think about the difference between sprint practices vs. practicing all types of athletics, they would offer very different amounts of training variation. Perhaps for children who only show interest in one sport, diversified and varied experiences within the sport may provide a more rounded and balanced sports experience.

Even in situations where a child has balanced and diverse experiences within a single-sport, it is still important to consider the wider social context outside of sport. If a child is completely immersed in one sport, it is always important to have non-sport related activities/friends too. For example, if a training session or competition goes badly, who/what can your child turn to as an “escape”? Having hobbies or friends outside of sport are great for when a child needs a break. If a young person ties their whole sense of self with participating in a particular sport, it can be difficult to cope when things go wrong, such as injury or deselection.

My child does gymnastics so early specialization is needed.
Several organisations have suggested that early specialization may be a requirement for success in sports where athletes peak early, such as gymnastics and figure skating. However, the actual evidence exploring this is extremely limited. Just look at Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan, a 44 year old gymnast who has qualified for the Olympics for the 8th time!

In fact, there is very little evidence that early specialization in any sport is beneficial. Previous research has found that success in youth sport does not always mean success in adult sport. In other words, early specialization does not guarantee long term success.

Take home message
While early specialization is associated with several risks, it is continuing to happen in youth sport. Therefore parents must consider what is right for their own child, regardless of the training traditions within the sports club. Having a fun and varied childhood is part of healthy development, but exactly how this variety is achieved will be specific to the needs of each child.

Please also remember that this blog post refers only to the psychological aspects of early specialization. There are many researchers who feel strongly that early specialization increases risk of injury and burnout.

References and extended reading:
Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 7-17, doi:10.1080/1612197X.2009.9671889

Fahlström, P. G., Gerrevall, P., Glemne, M., & Linnér, S. (2015). Vägarna till landslaget: Om svenska elitidrottares idrottsval och specialisering. (Vol. 1): Riksidrottsförbundet: FoU-rapport.

Haugaasen, M., Toering, T., & Jordet, G. (2014). From childhood to senior professional football: elite youth players’ engagement in non-football activities. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(20), 1940-1949, doi:10.1080/02640414.2014.970218

Storm, L. K., Henriksen, K., & Krogh, C. M. (2012). Specialization pathways among elite Danish athletes: a look at the developmental model of sport participation from a cultural perspective. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 43(3), 199-222, doi:10.7352/IJSP.2012.43.199

Patel, T., & Jayanthi, N. (2018). Health-related quality of life of specialized versus multi-sport young athletes: A qualitative evaluation. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1-36. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2017-0031


About the author
Charlotte previously trained as a dancer and teacher in the UK before beginning her PhD education at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. Her research focuses on the psychological aspects of early specialization, with a focus on aesthetic sports such as gymnastics, figure skating and dance (find Charlotte’s publications here). Aside from her academic work, Charlotte also delivers applied psychology workshops with dancers in high level training.

The blog post is written by Charlotte Downing (doctoral researcher) and therefore it's appropriate with a picture of Charlotte




Top in je Kop: How young athletes in The Netherlands are improving their mental skills behind their computer

We are proud to have Mark Schuls as guest author for our blog. Enjoy his text about his work with online training for youth athletes.

The Internet provides alternative ways of delivering sport psychology services to athletes. It has some advantages compared to classical methods of mental training, like face-to-face consulting and workshops. Maybe the most important one, is that the threshold to start is much lower. Also, people differ in the way they learn. Where some people learn by interaction with others, others like to read and reflect on themselves.

I am working as a sport psychology consultant in The Netherlands and I have implemented online mental training in the way I work, by designing a module for young athletes to improve their mental skills. Young athletes are presented skills like goal setting and imagery stepwise, by using examples from elite athletes, animated videos and exercises. There are three parts of the training divided in three steps. The focus of the three parts is on exploring their mental skills, learning to train effectively and performing under pressure respectively.

One example comes from step five of the training, in which the athletes learn how to build self-confidence. This exercise starts with “building a wall” as a metaphor for improving self-confidence. If you want to build a wall, you will have to use bricks. More bricks make the wall more solid. When something hits a weak wall, it will burst and maybe even collapse. When something hits a strong wall, there will be no or little damage. The bricks of self-confidence are positive experiences. The more positive experiences an athlete will have, the stronger his or her self-confidence will be.

Next, the young athlete is asked to write down positive experiences in each brick of a wall. This way, they will create an overview of their positive experiences. One could also use a marker and Lego blocks. This idea stems from the principles of positive psychology, which stress the importance of focusing on one’s strengths. The wall can be a reminder of what young athletes already have achieved and it can stimulate them to also focus on positive aspects of performance.

About the author: Mark Schuls has been working for 10 years as a registered sport psychologist in The Netherlands for his own company, TipTop Sport. More information can be found at www.tiptop-sport.nl.