When should athletes specialize in a single sport?
An increasing number of young athletes are specializing in a single sport leading to a general lack of foundational preparation and lack of physical literacy. Some coaches and many parents believe that if a young child begins learning the skills and training for a particular sport — and only that sport — then the child will have a much better chance at reaching elite levels of performance later on. They believe that participating in multiple sports only interferes with this laser-like focus.
The single sport idea is based on conventional wisdom but child development experts say that early specialization is, at best, ineffective for developing elite athletes and may be harmful to sport performance as a child gets older. Multiple sport participation, on the other hand, provides a foundation of physical literacy that will enhance later sport performance.
Very few sports require early specialization in order to achieve elite status. Those that do are skill intensive and have the performance goal of perfecting the coordination and form of a skill. Sports that are in this category include gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. What also makes these sports unique is that their primary skill set consists of fundamental movement skills, something every athlete, regardless of their sport, should have as part of their physical education and training background.
The peak performance window for early specialization activities opens earlier than for other sports. This helps explain why world-class female gymnasts are frequently in their early to mid-teens during their peak performance period while runners, for example, are usually in their mid-20s when they reach their peak. Male gymnasts peak a little later because strength, a larger component in men's events than in women's, is trained most effectively after the adolescent growth spurt.
Other sports don't have this early need for perfecting skills and are classified as late specialization activities. Not only is there no pressing need for specialization at young ages in these sports, but doing so prevents mastering the full set of fundamental movement skills. Mastery of these skills eventually manifests itself with a richness and depth of physical ability that athletes who specialize too early are never able to develop.
While early specialization activities center on acquiring and perfecting skills, the training priorities of late specialization sports are stamina, strength, and speed; components whose most effective training periods occur after puberty. Focusing on these components earlier doesn't produce the results that many expect and may lead to overuse injuries, early burnout, and premature retirement from training and competition.
Single sport specialization should occur at about the age of 16 for boys and 15 for girls. This coincides with a period of accelerated adaptation for strength following the adolescent growth spurt. Prior to this, athletes should be mastering fundamental movement skills, learning various sport skills, and participating in a variety of sport and movement activities. Smart coaches know that athlete development takes time. Trying to rush things through early specialization is not in the best interest of the athlete.