Early specialisation. It exists when a young athlete concentrates all of their efforts on a single sport, year round. And more and more, sports are pursuing such practice.
But it comes at a price.
Overwhelmingly, research indicates it to be detrimental to the health and well being of young athletes.
In the short-term, specialisation drives success. The 12-year-old tennis player who invests in many hours of practice will most likely win on Saturday. And in a world which emphatically rewards such success, it’s easy to see the attraction.
Critically, however, early success is not replicated at the adult level.
A major study of over 3,000 elite senior athletes across a variety of sports showed that early specialisation was positively related to early success, but negatively with achievement at the elite level. Basically, early success creates an illusion that an athlete will continue on to succeed in adulthood.
But even more worrying, specialising early has been linked to increased risk of injury, athlete burnout and dropping out of sport all together.
Why then has early specialisation become so popular?
The likely culprit? ‘Talent’. And the systems that have been set up to ‘supposedly’ identify it.
Selection methods used in talent identification are typically linked to early success. The ‘better’ you are, the more likely you’ll be selected. They’re also based on the specific requirements of a sport at the elite level, in particular, the technical and physical skills that can be easily measured.
When an individual has most or all of these requirements, he or she is thought to be talented.
Therefore, it makes sense that young athletes (and coaches) seeking selection into talent pathways see early specialisation as the best way to get there.
If you practice harder and long enough at one particular sport to improve your skills (at least, relative to everybody else), and you run yourself into the ground physically, you’re much more likely to get selected.
However, here’s the problem.
Most competitive skills and abilities required to be successful at the elite level are not evident in young children. In fact, only mental capacities, such as decision-making, have the potential for early identification.
Furthermore, and as aspect which is rarely considered, is the changing of requirements of a sport change over time (due to changes, for example, in equipment, training methods, and improved physical abilities).
For the vast majority of sports, young athletes are selected into talent programmes based on their abilities when they are young in the hope that they will transfer to successful athletes in the future.
Such selection methods are thriving despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Current talent identification methods are flawed. Decisions for identifying and developing young athletes must be based on the evidence available.
We must also continue to look for better ways of understanding what ‘talent’ itself actually is