Early Specialization and the Science of Success in Sport

As a clinical psychologist who works with athletes, I’m often asked to give talks to groups of parents, teachers, and coaches about healthy youth sport participation. Above all else, issues of early specialization garner the most interest, the most eager questions, and often, the most frustration. It’s clear that young athletes, parents, and schools are feeling increased pressure to specialize in one sport at a young age. Images of college scholarships and pro contracts result in more and more kids practicing and training hard year-round from an early age.

But what does the research tell us about youth sport specialization? Unfortunately, the data are not entirely consistent, but I will describe some of the issues here.

Women’s Gymnastics is Different from Men’s Rugby

Before we can begin to understand the specialization debate, we must acknowledge that peak performance is achieved in different sports at very different ages. Balyi and Hamilton (2004) describe sports as either early specialization or late specialization sports. That is, we might consider women’s gymnastics, figure skating, and diving to be early specialization sports because the best athletes are often very young. Most sports, however, are late specialization sports because peak performance is achieved in late adolescence and/or early adulthood. Examples of such sports include track and field, cycling, rowing, and most team-oriented sports. We can debate the psychological costs/benefits of participating in early specialization sports, but I’d like to side-step that issue for the moment. Given the scope of this article and because they form the bulk of most athletics, I’ll only be focusing on late specialization sports from now on.

Two Models of Elite Sport Development

Among sports characterized as late specialization, there are two proposed developmental pathways to elite sport development: Early Specialization and Early Diversification (Côté, Lidor, & Hackfort, 2009). Early specialization is generally defined as work-like and deliberate practice at a high volume from as early as six or seven years of age. Specialization practice is task-focused and oriented toward skill development. Alternatively, the early diversification (also known as early sampling) model is characterized by the sampling of a number of sports throughout childhood and early adolescence. Practice and competition promote fun, basic skill development, teamwork, and healthy lifestyles.

Early Specialization

The essential feature of early specialization programs is a high volume of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is defined as a work-like dedication to increasing performance, focused on outcomes, extrinsically motivated, and lacking in inherent enjoyment. Across sports and researchers, the consensus seems to be that early specialization programs increase dropout (Côté et al., 2009; Wall & Côté, 2007), poorer health, and more frequent injuries. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2001) issued a policy statement that discouraged specialization prior to puberty. They further suggest that children participate in a number of activities and limit organized sports to a maximum of six days a week.  

In my personal experience working with Division I collegiate athletes, I’ve found many of them, after spending more than half their lives in deliberate practice, no longer like their sport. However, these student-athletes continue to play because they don’t want to lose scholarships, disappoint their parents and, more often, they haven’t taken the time to develop other social or academic skills.

Early Diversification

Early diversification models are those that promote sampling across a wide array of sports and activities. Young athletes engage in deliberate play activities that are intrinsically motivated, fun, and socially engaging. The focus of this model is on healthy social, physical, and emotional development and the integration of athletics with a child’s life (rather than the other way around).

The benefits of early diversification are consistent in the literature. These deliberate play activities allow the child to experiment with different physical movements and strategies while developing a healthy sense of self (Côté, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007; Gould & Carson, 2004). Players who engaged in diverse sport activities had healthier social relationships and fewer injuries (including fewer catastrophic injuries like ACL tears).

What About Performance?

Evidence suggests that children who specialize in one sport later had greater athletic success. Although it is true that a child who specializes early will have greater short-term success, the long-term benefits of later specialization are relatively clear. Baker (2003) found that peak performing adult athletes typically engaged in a wide array of sporting activities during their youth and that participating in other sports augmented the cognitive and physical skills relevant to their sport. Abernethy (2005) found that child athletes who participated in a variety of sports and specialized in adolescence tended to be more consistent performers, experienced fewer injuries, and were involved in sports for a longer time than their early-specializing peers. Finally, in a study of 700 professional baseball players, my colleagues and I found that late specializing baseball players were more likely to get college scholarships and that they consistently practiced more than early specializers.

Anecdotally, among the Division I athletes I have worked with, most of them were multi-sport athletes throughout junior high and (often) most of high school. When I asked one student-athlete when he decided to specialize in one sport (he was an eight sport letterman in high school!), he replied, “When I was offered a scholarship.”

When Should Kids Specialize?

Côté’s (1999) proposed a three-stage model of athletic sport development that can help guide when kids should begin to engage in deliberate practice in one sport. The first stage, the sampling years, is the period before age 10 to 13. In these years, the focus should be on fun, physical movement, sportsmanship, and diversity of experience. Kids should experience team sports, individual sports, technical sports, and endurance sports. Experimentation with sports helps us find where our skills are (and aren’t).

The second phase of athletic development is the specializing years, that correspond to about the ages of 12-16 years. In this period, children can handle increased pressure, more focal training, and perhaps the identification of one primary sport. Despite increased specialization, kids should continue to play a range of sports throughout this period.  

The final stage of athletic development is referred to as the investment years. Starting at age 15 or 16, it is at this point that athletes are physically and psychologically developed enough to engage in large amounts of deliberate practice and work-like training. Sporting activity is focused on achievement in one sport and practice also begins to incorporate other activities such as weight lifting. Most athletes never make it to this phase.

Sports and health are important components to well-being and healthy psychological development. For various reasons, children, parents, and schools are feeling increasing pressure to specialize early. Research on this issue is clear: this pressure increases the likelihood of bad outcomes and reduces the quality of athletic development. More importantly, these programs run the risk of dissuading children from participating in sports and getting needed exercise. Parents, coaches, and schools are in a great position to promote the alternative message: that sports should fun, playful, and integrated with healthy social and emotional development.

Steve Smith, Ph.D. is a professor of clinical psychology at UC Santa Barbara and a member of the Board of Directors of Challenge Success. He has a private practice where he works with children, adolescents, and adults, with a specialization in boys and men, sports, health, and emotional concerns. In addition, he gives many invited presentations each year at professional conferences, schools, athletic clubs, work groups, and parenting organizations. He also served as a staff psychologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of over 40 empirical papers and has authored or edited five books. Until summer 2016, he will be on faculty of Palo Alto University.