Young athletes: Should they specialise or generalise?

official pulling javelin trolley

Arriving at their local athletics club for the first time with their young, would-be athlete, parents can often be heard saying things like “my child’s a sprinter”, “my child’s a distance runner”, “my child’s a high jumper”, etc.  But, how can you know that if they've not had a chance to try something else? And how much of this certainty comes merely off the back of a school sports day win, or worse still, the parent’s own preference for an event?

 
Using ourselves as an example of how disastrous this can be:
  • Joe used to regularly win the 100m sprint at primary school sports day. Now, if we’d arrived at the club and insisted that he was a 100m sprinter, it's safe to say he wouldn’t have lasted long!

  • If I’d ‘persuaded’ him into the 800m and 1500m that I’d loved to watch (back in the Coe, Ovett, Cram, Elliot era) and the longer distances that I myself had run (non-competitively I must add!!), well, I dread to think how many weeks his career would have lasted… anyone who knew Joe back then will recall that anything beyond 400m really wasn't a go-er!!


In short: School sports day wins, and your own personal preference, are not great speciality indicators.


In any case, turning up at your local track and announcing your kid's speciality, is generally looked upon with a degree of frustration by coaches, especially if the child is under the age of say 14 years, as a more generalised approach is now deemed more beneficial for young athletes.  

 

The terms explained:

Early sport specialisation - “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age” (1)

Generalised approach - “participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete develops multilateral physical, social, and psychological skills” (2).

The most obvious downside of early specialisation is that children miss the opportunity of trying other sports/disciplines and the fun that accompanies those experiences. Just think, how sad would it be if their actual speciality turned out to be an event they never tried! Of course, in this situation, you (and they) will never know but, you get my point! The saying “you don’t know until you try” rings very true here.


“How will you know if you don't try?”

Joe having a go at high jump...


... and long jump!


Early event specialisation will also bring an increased risk of injury. By definition, it will require the same actions/movements to be repeated on a regular basis often for extended lengths of time. It’s clear to see that, for example, repeatedly practicing high/long jump will increase the likelihood of injury to the take-off foot due to repeated and excessive loading. For a young athlete, the potential for this sort of risk can be even greater as their bodies (especially the muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, etc) are still developing and are therefore susceptible to injury. Fundamental motor skills are also still being developed which again can contribute to an increased risk of injury.

Of course, a major benefit of generalisation comes in YDL competitions where clubs are grateful for all the points they can get. If you once threw a discus you're probably in!! 


However, there are always exceptions to the rule!

'Mondo' Duplantis


For some, early specialisation has clearly worked. Take global stars like Mondo Duplantis, the Swedish-American pole vaulter and current World Record holder, who started vaulting at the age of three, set his first age-group world best at seven years of age, and basically never stopped! His father, incidentally, was a pole vaulter.

In other sports, stars like Serena and Venus Williams, and Tiger Woods also focused on their chosen sport from very early ages. But when one stops to consider all the young athletes that have excelled at youth and junior level but then fail to successfully transition to senior level, we do have to wonder why.

 
Could this impaired/lack of progression be, to a certain extent, down to early specialisation?

Of course, there are probably a million and one explanations but an increasing number of ‘experts’ are now tending to favour delayed specialisation. The perfect example that illustrates the advantages of the generalisation approach is the tennis player Roger Federer. His mother, a tennis coach, is said to have insisted that he continued a variety of other sports (namely badminton and basketball) during his early years, and it is these sports that he now attributes his superior hand-eye coordination in his tennis. It is also worth noting that he is now 40 years old and still at the top of the game, further fuel for the generalisation-longevity argument!

Let’s face it, in track and field athletes are spoilt for choice. The nature of the sport implies that young athletes can easily try a broad variety of disciplines that all fall under the track and field umbrella, including cross country and road running.

Giving youngsters this opportunity has been said to not only enhance their enjoyment, but also allow them to tap into different skill sets, and it is here that they potentially discover a skill they never knew they had, or even thought they could have.

Ultimately of course, this generalisation enables them to experiment and find their own personal niche, the event they feel they are good at but also, and importantly, enjoy.

These two points invariably go hand in hand as kids tend to enjoy something more IF they are good at it! From a parent’s point of view, your child’s long-term engagement in the sport is your ultimate goal as this will not only help them to be fit and healthy but will also enable them to create meaningful friendships along the way, as will you!

Enjoyment is undoubtedly the key to continued engagement suggesting it is, therefore, THE most important factor.

Karsten Warholm: by Getty 

Of course, athletics also caters for those who are good at several disciplines, who can compete as heptathletes or decathletes, many choosing to specialise further down the line. In fact, several of the world’s top single event athletes started off as multi-eventers, Karsten Warholm, the 400m hurdles World Record holder being the perfect example. His superiority in the event has often been attributed to his younger years in decathlon and the brutal all-body training that required.


Morgan Lake

Morgan Lake by Jodi Hanagan 

The GB Olympian, Morgan Lake, also started off as a heptathlete, later specialising in high jump.

The question of generalisation vs specialisation is investigated brilliantly in David Epstein’s book, Range. For those of you who like a good read, this book discusses this subject’s relevance in several areas of life, not just sport, and also brings into question the whole 10,000 hours of training theory. His take-home message is that early generalisation leading to later specialisation is, more often than not, the most effective strategy. In this short video, David Epstein discusses this subject with Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers: The Story Of Success.

(Click here for a more lengthy discussion on this subject)

So, the general consensus appears to be that caution should be applied when considering specialisation during the early years, primarily to avoid the ‘too much too soon’ injury scenarios but also to allow young athletes to ‘have a go’ at all the disciplines on offer allows them to eventually choose their speciality based on their own experiences rather than the assumptions of others. Importantly, allowing this to be a journey of discovery removes the joy-killing pressures of expectation that young people are arguably not yet equipped to deal with.

At the end of the day, every child is different and yes, some may love the challenge of early specialisation, but most will benefit more from the generalised approach. Encouraging them from day one to have a go at everything on offer will almost certainly increase their chances of:

  • seeing sport in general as fun (resulting in longer engagement)

  • finding an event that they enjoy

  • finding an event that ‘clicks’

  • ultimately discovering their event.

 

 

Joe, eventually representing GB Juniors in the 400m hurdles

 

The take-home message:

During this initial voyage of discovery, it's probably a good idea for parents to try and take a step back though clearly this is sometimes easier said than done. Let your kids have a go at literally everything on offer and resist the temptation to steer or influence.

You never know, your 'sprinter' might actually be the next Eilish McColgan who, incidentally, spent her earlier years as a steeplechaser! 


References:

  1. Ferguson, B, and Stern, PJ. A case of early sports specialization in an adolescent athlete. Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 58(4): 337-383, 2014.

  2. Wiersma, LD. Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science 12(1): 13-22, 2000.

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