1.1 Theoretical Background
Participating in sports or other physical activity is recommended for children and youth due to the physical and mental health benefits in short-term and long-term. In addition to learn-ing sport specific skills, sports can also teach various essential life skills and has a positive effect on health later in life (Baron, 2007, Weiss, 2004, Van Langendonck & Al, 2003 in Kaleth & Mikesky, 2010, 1).
Sport specialization means that athlete is participating in intense training only in one sport while excluding other sports. Starting to specialize before puberty or in the beginning of puberty is getting increasingly common. Some level of sport specialization is needed to attain elite level in sports, but the timing of specialization is a common subject of debate. The biggest concern is that starting intense training in early childhood may be detrimental to the athlete (Jayanthi, Pinkham, Dugas, Patrick & LaBella, 2012). The potential risks in-cluded in early specialization are higher rate of injuries and overtraining, potential complica-tions in growth and maturation especially with females, burnouts, dropouts, social isolation and health issues later in life. There’s no evidence that intensive training and exclusion of other sports is necessary to attain elite level in late specialization sports.
The trend in youth sport participation has developed from recreational free play to highly structured sport specific training with emphasis to develop skills required to succeed in sports. (Malina, 2010, 365; Vaeyens, Gullich, Warr, 2009, in Jayanthi ; Al, 2012). Jayanthi ; Al (2012) suggest that “This evolution in youth sports may have developed as a result of society’s increasing regard for successful athletes, who enjoy significant recognition and financial rewards for their achievements”.
“Sports specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports”.
However, there is variations on this theme. There is disagreement on what volume of train-ing is intense and does the athlete have to exclude all other sports to be classified as spe-cialized. Some suggest that there’s a minimum amount of training that has to be done to be specialized and others think that specialization means participating in one sport year round regardless of training volume (Hill & Simons, 1989 in Jayanthi & Al, 2012).
Ericsson et al “proposed 3 stages in becoming a specialist or expert musician: 1. start at an early age, 2. specialize and increase participation and 3. dedicate full-time commitment” (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993, in Jayanthi & Al, 2012). This definitions doesn’t take into account athletes who participate in one sport year round training in high volumes, but still competes in other sports and those athletes who participate in only one sport with changing participation during the year (Jayanthi ; Al, 2012).
It’s hard to say what would be best way to define specialization, but probably it would be participating in one sport more than 8 months in a year, practicing more hours in a week than the athletes age’s in organized sports and more than 16 hours a week in intense physical activity. The common guidelines for the amount of training young athletes should do is maximum 8 months of training a year in one sport, practicing maximum the same amount of hours a week that the athletes age is in organized sports and maximum of 16 hours in a week of physical activity. Which is recommended by modern long-term devel-opment models (Côté ; Al, 2009, Lloyd ; Oliver, 2012 in Blagrove ; Al, 2017; 1).
Early Specialization Sports: “Early specialization sports (mostly acrobatic and artistic sports such as diving, figure skating, and gymnastics) are defined as sports in which early sport-specific training (by ages 5 to 7) is necessary for future excellence. In these sports, complex movement and sport skills should be acquired before the onset of the adolescent growth spurt (or peak height velocity, or PHV), which is approximately 12 years of age for females and 14 years of age for males” (Balyi, Way ; Higgs, 2013). Common between early specialization sports is also the very young age when athletes peak. This might hap-pen as early as in the beginning of puberty.
Late Specialization Sports: “Late specialization sports are practically all other sports, in-cluding team sports, racket sports, combative sports, and gliding sports” (Balyi ; Al, 2013). Common between late specialization sports is that the athletes peak after puberty.
Deliberate Practice: “Effortful practice that lacks inherent enjoyment done with the sole purpose of improving current levels of performance” (Starks ; Ericsson 2003, in Malina 2010, 366).
Deliberate Play: Training that has age appropriate rules which are set by children and su-pervised by children or an adult (Côté, Lidor ; Hackfort, 2009). Games like street hockey, street basketball or tag in swimming pool are considered as deliberate play.
Sampling, diversification, multisport background: Athlete has participated in multiple sports until mid- or late puberty.
Athlete Pathway: “An athlete pathway spans the entire continuum of athletic development, from initiation of fundamental movement and participation in physical activity through to
lifelong engagement and proficiency at a senior, elite, and/or international level” (Cameron ; Porter, 2017).
2 Literature Review
2.1 Roots Of Early Specialization
To get a better picture of the issue we first have to take a look at where and when has ear-ly specialization has started and what are the things which influence us to choose early specialization.
2.1.1 Eastern Europe
The relative success of the former communist countries of Eastern-Europe in sports es-pecially in former German Democratic Republic and Soviet Union (Malina 1994, 389, has been seen as a contributing factor to a perceived need for early specialization. In the west, it’s commonly seen that systematic training in Eastern-Europe started at early ages and involved year-round participation. The quite young age of the athletes in several sports were highlighted in the media and reinforced the early specialization being need for suc-cess. Eastern European talent identification and development programs varied to some extent by sport and emphasized participation to a variety of activities and skills in early sport experiences (multilateral training). Specialization in most sports started after or late puberty, but there was some exceptions like gymnastics, diving, figure skating and some-what also swimming. In these sports, specialization started much earlier (Bompa, 1995, Bompa 1985, Drapik, 1996, Hartley 1988, Rost and Schon in Malina, 2010; 364). It’s be-lieved that early specialization was reinforced by sport experts from Eastern-Europe who moved to western countries and started working with elite athletes (Malina, 2010; 364).
2.1.2 Role of parents
Parents play a big role when it comes to specializing in sports and other hobbies or activi-ties in young people’s life. “In the study Developing Talent in Young People (Bloom, 1985 in Malina, 2010; 365) talented individuals in sport (tennis, swimming), art (pianists, sculptors), and science (research neurologists, mathematicians), fields in which success (elite status) was attained at relatively young ages were studied.” The home environments of these tal-ented individuals had three common characteristics:
– The parents pushed their own interest into the activities of their children and they were really involved in the children’s hobbies
– The parents concentrated in development in that hobby the child was participating in
– The parents valued and emphasized achievement (Sloane, 1985 in Malina, 2010; 365).
So the parents in this study were really results-oriented and involved in their children’s hobbies. This kind of behavior has at least been influenced by stories like Tiger Woods who was introduced to Golf at the age of two and Williams sisters who have a similar background with a lot of deliberate performance-oriented practice, a very involved parent end highly-regulated life since childhood which has lead to high success (Malina, 2010; 365). Although parents are often the driving influence on the initiation of sports, multiple studies suggest that the coach is the primary driving influence on the decision to specialize in a single sport Feeley, Agel & LaPrade, 2015, 2).
Showing interest in your children’s hobbies and pushing them to achieve things is a good thing, but in children’s sports the emphasis should be on the enjoyment of sport. There’s of course other people who affects children’s specialization like coaches, friends and other people close to or meaningful to them.
“Children often are labeled as gifted or talented at an early age in sport, arts and academ-ics. Such labeling probably encourages specialization (Malina, 2010).” We all have proba-bly seen some videos, heard about or seen a really young child who seems to be extreme-ly talented in his sport or playing an instrument or whatever the activity is. These children are often called (labeled) as the next superstar like the next Michael Phelps etc. This label-ing can have an effect on specialization, but to what extent is still unclear.
2.1.4 Economic benefits
Some parents and children may be affected by the possible financial benefits of sports. The mentality they have is that if you start earlier than others, they will get an edge over others by accumulating more training hours and the possibility to get scholarships, even though this is a bit unrealistic because only 2.2% of girls and 2% of boys who participate in sports in high school will get a full or partial scholarship (Pennington, 2008 in Malina, 2010, 365), sponsor deals or professional contract which is again unrealistic since only small part of children who participate in sports will ever become a professional athlete (Coté, Horton, MacDonald & Wilkes, 2009). It has been suggested that the sporting goods indus-try has affected early specialization due to increased demand for sport products and ad-vertisement aimed for parents and young people (Malina 2010, 366).
2.1.5 10 000 hour rule
There’s plenty of evidence that 10 000 hour of deliberate practice and/or 10 years of expe-rience is needed to achieve level of expertise and international success in multiple disci-plines such as music, chess and sports. Deliberate practice is described by Ericsson as “effortful practice that lacks inherent enjoyment done with the sole purpose of improving current levels of performance” (Starks ; Ericsson 2003, in Malina 2010, 366; Ericsson 1993, Sosniak 1985, Gustin, 1985, Kalinowski, 1985, Wallingford, 1975 in Baker, 2003, 86).
However, there’s also plenty of evidence proving that 10 000 hour of deliberate practice and focusing in single sport isn’t needed to achieve international level in sports. It has been studied and suggested that elite level in sports can be achieved with only 3000-4000 hours of practice (Côté, Lidor ; Hackfort 2009, 10; Moesch, Elbe, Hauge, ; Wikman 2011).
Now that 10 000 hours of deliberate practice in 10 years comes down to close to 3 hours (~2.7 hours) of practice a day every day during the 10 year period of time. That is a lot of practice which isn’t necessarily enjoyable (deliberate practice) to achieve especially for young people.
This kind of time commitment will exclude children from other activities and to achieve these training amounts, parents might see essential for their children to start specializing early in single sport (Malina 2010, 366).
2.2 Physical impact
There can also be physiological consequences to early specialization. Most commonly discussed in literature are injuries, overtraining, limited motor skills and concerns about the effect of excessive training on childrens growth and maturation, especially with females.
2.2.1 Motor skills and coordination
One of the most discussed benefits supporting specialization is learning skills for the spe-cific sport the children are participating in and it’s probably true. Athletes who practice more frequently and more hours, are more proficient than the athletes who practice less. Some adults believe that if children isn’t involved in organized sports by the age of 7, they will be behind in their skill development (Wiersma, 2000 in Buhrow, Digmann, Waldron, Gienau, Thomas & Sigler 2017, 46). However, it has been speculated that limited range of skills practiced during early specialization will harm overall skill development, which may affect involvement in physical activity and health in long-term by decreasing the likelihood of par-ticipating in other physical activities (Wiersma, 2000).
When studying about the differences in physical and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6-12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport they found that children who participate in more than one sport showed better test results in strength (knee push-ups, sit-ups, hand grip strength and standing broad jump), in flexibility (sit and reach performance), speed and agility (10x5m shuttle run), cardiovascular endurance (endurance shuttle run) and in gross motor coordination (walking backwards on a balance beam, moving sideways on boxes, hopping for height on one foot and jumping sideways) (Fransen, Pion , Vandendriessche , Vandorpe , Vaeyens , Lenoir & Philippaerts 2012, 381).
(Lidor, Côté & Hackfort, 2009, 139) found that tests on same physical qualities worked as a predictor for future success in team and individual sports. While some researchers note that critical periods may exist when a sport is learned, but “Scientific evidence does not support the belief that specific skills must be learned and perfected before the onset of puberty” (Hecimovich, 2004, 35).
2.2.2 Growth and maturation
Complications in growth and maturation have been occasionally said to be as a possible result from early specialization. Especially who has a short stature and later maturation are examples of these complications (Malina 1994),
When studying the effects of training to growth and maturations, gymnastics seems to be the sport that is most affected by training at young age. In a two year comparison period of adolescent gymansts and swimmers, results showed that gymnasts had much lower growth velocity and their predicted height dropped over time (Theintz et al in Goodway & Robinson, 2015, 274). Swimming didn’t have any negative impact on the swimmers. Same findings were made by Malina (1994) and Baxter-Jones, Helms, Maffulli, Baines-Preece ; Preece (1995, 390). Malina’s research showed that swimmers were above median in height and weight and the latter study found out that male swimmers matured earlier and male gymnasts matured later than average.
There’s some findings that indicate that girls who do sports get their menarche later than girls who don’t do sports. This brings up concern that intensive training might affect girls sexual maturation. There’s hypothesis that poor nutrition, training stress and low levels of body fat is responsible for this delay. Some gymnasts might feel the pressure to have cer-tain kind of appearance and this can lead to eating disorders. (Hecimovich, 2004, 35-36).
All though this is a risk in other sports as well and not only because the pressure felt from having certain kind appearance in sports, but because of societal pressure.
“Interestingly, a slower rate of maturation has been suggested to play a role in the devel-opment of elite athletes in some sports” (Peltenburg, Erich, Zonderland, Bernink, VanDen-Brande ; Huisveld, 1984).
The research of this subject is still limited, but there’s some research showing that physical training can affect the growth and maturation of physically active children. Most of the evi-dence however, shows that sport participation doesn’t affect growth and maturation (Ma-lina, 1994 in Kaleth, Mikesky, 2010, 30).
Based on the research made for this work, it seems that gymnasts seems to be to most affected by training on their growth and maturation. Since gymnastics is an early speciali-zation sport, we can hypothesize that the cause is the intensive training gymnasts go un-der at very young age. Swimmers on the other hand seems to be safe from this.
There is concerns that physical training may cause cardiac problems, but it’s based on limited data and there’s no indication that athletic training will cause heart injury (Heci-movich 2004, 36).
2.2.3 Injuries and overtraining
As the participation in youth organized sports keep increasing, so does injuries. More and more children are participating in organized sports year-round and sometimes in multiple sports simultaneously, is the reason for increasing amount in overuse injuries. Overuse is the most common factor that leads to injuries in young athletes (Brenner, 2007).
Same findings were made by (Post, Trigsted, Riekena, Hetzel, McGuine, Brooks ; Bell 2017, 1408) in their study; the association of sport specialization and training volume with injury history in youth athletes they reported that “highly specialized athletes were more likely to report a previous injury of any kind or an overuse injury in the previous year com-pared to athletes in the low specialization group.”