06 April 2011

Should kids specialise in sports?

Is there an optomal time to begin to specialise in a particular sport, asks FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker. He takes a look at talent versus hard work in terms of sporting success.

Is there an optomal time to begin to specialise in a particular sport, asks FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker. He takes a look at whether children should specialise in one sport and when.

There is no single pathway to success in sport.  If there were, we wouldn't be able to compare the stories of Chrissie Wellington, who discovered her remarkable talent late in life but went on to dominate IronMan Triathlon within a few years, to that of another endurance athlete, say Floyd Landis, who began cycling at school, with a single minded focus that took him to the professional level many years later.

There are countless cases of both examples, not only in endurance sport, but in skill-based sports - cricket or rugby players who "arrive" in their 20s, compared to the "prodigies" who are ear-marked for success from their early teenage years, or even earlier. 

If it took starting at the age of four, with a parent driving a child to train for hours a day (think Agassi, Woods), then we wouldn't have cases like Roger Federer, who showed exceptional tennis ability very young, but did play other sports (on this note, Federer is reported to have begun at six, but played football and tennis until he focused on tennis at 12 - this is still young, as we'll see later, but it's not nearly as early as other cases of tennis players.  Compare Agassi, who spent hours a day practising at six years old, and who even played a match for money at the age of nine, at his father's "request").

But is there an optimal time to begin specialisation in a particular sport? This is such a loaded question that I can't possibly answer it, so with that question begins a series of articles where I'll look at some of the evidence for whether young athletes who specialise very early on are more or less likely to succeed than athletes who delay high training volumes, competition and specialisation in sport.

Without wanting to be too prescriptive, I think the following sub-headings needs to be addressed in a series:

  1. What do elite athletes do? Is there evidence to say whether early or late specialisation is better?
  2. What does science make of the 10,000 hour concept that that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practise to become an 'expert'?  (Really, what this gets at is whether there is such a thing as "talent" or whether hard work and practise allows anyone to succeed.  It's the Coyle, Syed and Gladwell argument in Talent Code, Bounce and Outliers.  But what does physiology make of it?)
  3. What is the concept of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD)?  Where are its strengths, and where are its shortcomings, both practically and physiologically?
  4. What are the implications of all this for coaches, parents, and young athletes?

The method and findings

  • The first is that the Near-Elite group had actually gotten an earlier start than those who would go on to be elite - by the age of 9, they're 160 hours of practice time ahead.  
  • That difference persists up to the age of 18, by which time there is no difference between the Elite and Near-Elite athletes.  
  • Then, at the age of 21, the Elite athletes have pulled well clear, with about 1,100 hours more training than the Near-Elites at that age.  
  • And finally, there was no difference in the number of months spent on other sports - 63 months for the Elites, 62 for the Near-Elites.  In other words, during the 12 year period of sampling, both groups spent just over five years in total practising in other sports.  What is not reported is how those sports were spread out - were they done predominantly from 12 to 15, were they done for seven months a year or all at once?

  • Up to the age of nine, as we said, the athletes who will go on to be Near-Elites do more than twice as much practise - it's an artificially low number, of course, because there's probably zero training up to maybe five or six on average, but it had to start somewhere.
  • From nine to 12, Near-Elites do two hours a week more than athletes who will go on to be Elite.
  • From 12 to 15, Near-Elites remain ahead, and the result is that by 15, they'd accumulated about 850 hours more practise than the Elite group had done
  • Then from 15 to 18, it changes. Here, the Near-Elites began to practise less, while the Elite group continued, increasing to almost two hours a day on average.  That shift is what causes the cumulative practise time at 18 to be equal between the groups, as we showed in the previous figure
  • From 18 to 21, more of the same - the Elite group continues to spend 14 hours a week in practise, while the athletes who will go on to be Near-Elite drop down to just under seven hours a week

  1. Elite athletes specialise later in their career.
  2. Near-Elite athletes pass through “milestones” sooner than elite athletes (I didn't go into this data, but the summary is that the athletes who go on to be Near-Elite begin sport younger, train hard sooner and enter international competition around two years earlier than athletes going on to be Elite).
  3. Elite athletes enter international competition older (as for above).
  4. There is no difference in the time spent on other sports (remember, 62 months vs 63 months over the recall period).
  5. "There is no delay in the athletic development that cannot be made up later with late specialisation".


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