At What Age Should My Child Specialise in a Specific Sport?

Young Baseball Player

Children need to develop as athletes before they become specialized as players. This can be achieved by teaching children the fundamental skills required as a foundation for more complex physical activities and sports. These basic skills form the basis of “physical literacy” – fundamental movement and fundamental sport skills which permit a child to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activities and sports This will allow children to partake in sport without fear of failure and therefore increase the likelihood of them beginning a new sport or continuing with one, leading to a active healthy life. In addition, having good fundamental skills provides the basis from which sporting excellence can grow. Research has shown that it takes about 10 years of sustained, disciplined and deliberate practice to achieve at the highest sporting levels. Only once the basic athletic skills have been mastered, can an athlete begin to specialize in sport specific techniques and skills.

Physical literacy should be developed prior to the onset of the adolescent growth spurt.

These fundamental skills include the ABCs of athleticism, (agility, balance and co-ordination), the ABCs of athletics, (running, jumping, wheeling/rotation and throwing) as well as swimming, sliding/skating, sending and receiving an object, dribbling, striking and rhythmic skills. Some sports and activities are better at developing one or more of the ABCs than others as depicted below.

(Source: Canadian Sport for Life)

Sports can be classified as either early or late specialization sports. Early specialization sports include gymnastics, diving and figure skating, whilst late specialization sports are sports such as soccer, rugby, basketball, hockey and cricket. The reason for these sports being early specialization is that the complex skills required for them need to be mastered before puberty otherwise they are difficult to learn after physical maturation. One of the reasons being that flexibility decreases after puberty. In late specialization sports the levels required for international competition can still be achieved if specialisation takes place between 12 and 15 years of age as long as physical literacy has been achieved before adolescence. As a parent it is important to make sure that your child is not being pushed too hard too early to specialise by a coach. Another factor to consider is whether or not your child is an early or late developer, but more about that in another edition of From the Stands.  Each sporting code also needs to determine the best time of specialization for optimal success.

Different studies conducted around the world report that the more successful Olympic sportsmen and women tended to specialize after the age of 15.

Some guidelines for parents to follow

  • Boys, aged 6- 9 and girls, aged 6-8 should participate in a wide variety of activities to develop the basic skills of agility, balance, co-ordination and rhythmic movement. The activities should be land and water based and where possible include ice/snow. There should be no specialisation in a single sport.
  • From ages 8 – 11 in girls and 9 – 12 in boys (i.e. the approximate onset of the growth spurt) is the important stage for developing sport specific skills, but by playing at least 2 -3 sports in different seasons. Parents should discourage focusing on only one sport throughout the year. Children should also not specialize in one specific position, stroke or technique for example batting or bowling in cricket.

There are a number of challenges that parents and athletes face should specialisation in late specialisation sports commence prior to age 10.

  • Physical and psychological burn-out
  • One-sided, sport specific preparation
  • Loss of diverse social contacts
  • Loss of transferable athletic skills
  • Greater risk of overuse and repetitive stress injuries
  • Higher levels of pre-competition anxiety which can lead to emotional trauma
  • Difficulty coping with athletic failure later if they experience success at too early an age

Between ages 11 and 15 in girls and 12 and 16 in boys (i.e. the onset and end of the growth spurt) adolescents are ready to consolidate their sport-specific skills and begin to specialize in a single sport should they wish.

Should your child insist on specialising early or for those early specialisation sports here are some tips for reducing injury or burnout:

  • Focus on improving overall performance and developing new skills, not on winning
  • Make sure your child uses proper training techniques
  • Avoid over training
  • Watch for overuse injuries, schedule regular doctor’s appointments
  • Never tell your child  to “play/work through the pain”
  • Let your child choose the sports and level of participation
  • Make sure your child has an off season to avoid burnout

“Participating in a variety of sports will help a child develop other athletic skills that they would not develop if they specialised in one sport too early. Athletic skills such as speed, balance, mental focus, jumping and reacting are all stressed differently in different sports. These skills will later transfer to the child’s primary activity, so everything a child does to become a better all-round athlete will make the child a better soccer player, for instance.” (Jennifer VanSickle, assistant professor of Sport Management, University of Indianapolis)

Let your child explore a variety of different physical activities and sports so that he/she can develop the necessary skills to sustain a long-term sporting life either as a participant or a competitive athlete. By doing this your child will make the decisions that are right for him/her at the right time. Support them in their development and ultimate choice of a sport.

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