Home » Early Sport Specialization: Some Benefits, But Many Drawbacks

Early Sport Specialization: Some Benefits, But Many Drawbacks

10,000 hour rule debunked; early sampling of many sports strongly recommended by experts

As a recent Aspen Institute research paper notes, just about every signal parents and youth athletes receive today from the prevailing youth sports culture supports the idea that high doses of one sport at an early age is the only pathway to athletic stardom. 

Well, not every signal.

We at MomsTEAM, for one, have been fighting that culture, and trying for the past 20 years to debunk the many myths that have grown up around the supposed need for kids to specialize in a single sport before adolescence.

In my 2006 book, "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports," I devoted eight pages to cataloguing the reasons why early specialization (e.g. a year-round training program in one sport and the elimination of other activities) was a bad idea, which later formed the basis for a series of articles for MomsTEAM adapted from the book.  

I wrote then that "the trend towards early specialization (to be distinguished from starting early, which, for some sports, such as ice hockey, is important), and an increasingly professionalized approach to youth sports, appears to be driven more by folklore, myths and half-truths, a herd mentality, the ever-burgeoning youth sports industry, and by adults more intent on winning than acting in the best long-term interests of children, than actual, cold, hard evidence."  

Women's soccer players vying for ball

Unfortunately, it appears that the trend towards early specialization, if anything, is accelerating. 

To separate fact from fiction, and, in the hopes that parents will make decisions about the sports their children play based on facts, not fiction, here are answers to three of the most frequently asked questions about early sport specialization: 

Question: What are the benefits and drawbacks of early specialization?

Answer:  The research supports a few specific benefits and domains in which early specialization is advantageous: 

  • It appears to help in certain sports: There is some support for early specialization, with the strongest support in sports in which peak performance occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, specifically women's gymnastics and women's figure skating.  
  • It may be the best path to achieve early age-group success: If a young player's only goal is to improve their current performance, early specialization will give the athlete, and their coach, the best chance of success in that age-group.  In other words, if the coach's goal is to win the Little League World Series, encouraging the child to limit or exclude participation in other sports in order to focus solely on developing baseball skills may be the most effective way to achieve the coach's goal. 
  • It can provide short-term psychological rewards and access to better coaching and competition.  Today's youth sports landscape increasingly measures success and performance through selection to elite travel teams, which have access to better coaching and competition. Early sports success, such as by making a specific team, can lead to increased self-esteem and motivate the athlete as he or she continues in the sport.  It also may, at the same time, eliminate some of the early specializer's competition who may get discouraged and self-select out of continued competition because they don't achieve the same kind of early success, either because they are late bloomers, or because they play multiple sports.  [For an article talking about the advantages afforded early bloomers, click here.] 

But for the vast majority of athletes, the drawbacks of early specialization are numerous.  The majority of research suggests that early specialization can have significant negative consequences for the development of an athlete over time.

Studies have shown that early specialization:

  • can interfere with healthy child development by increasing social isolation; 
  • can hurt, rather than help, skill development, by limiting the range of motor skills developed;  
  • can lead to overuse injuries; 
  • promotes adult values and interests, not those of children
  • can shorten athletic careers;
  • increases the chances that the child will suffer burnout and quit sports; and
  • reduces the chance that children will stay active in sports as adults.

Question: What is the 10 year/10,000 hour rule and is it required to achieve elite-level success in sports?

Answer:  About twenty years ago, Swedish researcher Anders Ericsson and many of his contemporaries began advancing the idea that 10 years and 10,000 hours of focused and specific practice are often necessary for one to reach expert status in a particular field. According to this model, participants can only reach their potential and succeed if they are exposed to this form of activity at an early age and maintain high volume of practice over time.  

The 10,000 hour notion, says the recent Aspen Institute research brief, is one that "inevitably promotes early specialization."  and is a rule often cited by coaches, entrepreneurs, private sports facility owners, in anecdotal cases of child prodigies who went on to find success, by the college sports industry, and by best selling authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, who introduced the '10,000 hour rule' of 'deliberate practice' to a mass audience."  (although, notes the brief, Ericsson "never called it a 'rule,'" and Gladwell himself later backed off his statement, saying that his analysis in Outliers was confined to those engaged in "cognitively demanding fields" and "that it is a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand hour idea applies to every domain.") 

While studies provide general support for the role of practice in athletic development and a strong positive relationship between the amount of practice time accumulated and elite sports performance, research also suggests that the cumulative amount of training necessary to achieve elite-level status may be far less than the 10,000 hours some have proposed.  

  • Studies have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status, with the average sport-specific hours to reach international levels in basketball, field hockey and wrestling closer to 4,000, 4,000 and 6,000 respectively, 
  • A study of Australian athletes finding that 28% of senior national athletes reaching elite playing status within just four years of beginning their sport and 69% of novice athletes developing into senior elite athletes in an average of 7.5 years.
  • A 2012 article in the British Journal of Medicine concluded that the "concept of a minimum volume of training required for expert performance, and in particular the concept of 10,000 hours, is flawed, based on the body of evidence suggesting that among individuals who have achieved similar performance levels, training times are rarely similar.  
  • Reviewing the literature, a new position statement by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine concludes that "diversified sports training during early and middle adolescence may be a more effective strategy in ultimately developing elite-level skills in the primary sport due to a positive transfer of skills."  The AMSSM says consideration should be given to "delaying intensive, specialized training until late adolescence, rather than a specific age, to optimize skill development in most sports."

Unfortunately, as the Aspen Institute research brief notes, the popular understanding - on the Internet and among sports parents - of the 10,000 hour rule "often dismisses the role of numerous factors that interact to shape skill acquisition such as genetic ability, maturation, coaching, parental support, and even general skills like physical fitness, and rather [attributes] sports expertise to only one element - engagement in deliberate practice.