In an effort to achieve elite sporting status, children and adolescents are focusing on one sport earlier in their careers, often to the detriment of their bodies. Early specialisation of sport is a topic of conversation gaining a lot of traction across the country. ‘Specialisation’ occurs when an athlete focuses on only one sport, at the exclusion of any other. A few weeks ago, I attended the Adolescent Athletes Symposium held by Sports Medicine Australia in Geelong. Geraldine Naughton a professor in Paediatric Science highlighted the increase in early specialisation and presented some of the most recent research in this area.
When an athlete chooses to complete just one sport prior to puberty it can lead to many negative outcomes including;
Limitation of skill development
Use of the same repetitive drills, which can lead to overuse injuries
Promotion of adult interest in sport (different goals of the coaches/parent compared to the athlete)
Increased participation in year-long sports, and playing across multiple teams
Working as an osteopath in the highly sporting area of Bayside I get presented a lot of primary and secondary school-aged patients with sporting complaints. A high percentage of these injuries could be attributed to overuse and repetitive strain mechanisms.
Choosing to focus on one sporting field can have its positives, and is often necessary for sports such as gymnastics or golf. It can also help prevent burning out due to increased levels of training across multiple sports throughout the week. However, there are ways that we can ensure our children are not being pushed beyond their physical and mental capabilities, these include;
Ensuring all coaches have proper and up-to-date accreditation
Having regular rest breaks, to help avoid ‘heat’ injury. This is particularly important in the summer months of the year.
Training the ‘whole’ body, rather than just upper or lower extremities
Including flexibility, balance and learning to control speed (utilising acceleration and deceleration training)
Another important aspect of exercise is that of ‘deliberate play’. This is informal and generally organised by the children. Playing basketball at the park or cricket in the backyard harvests imagination which leads to the development of improvisation in sport. This unstructured activity also improves the child’s intrinsic motivation for their sport and the enjoyment received means they are less likely to drop out of organised sport.
It is a hard question to answer exactly how many hours a week of training a child or adolescent should be completing. A simple rule is, ‘fewer hour’s less than their age’. Facilitating late specialisation in sport provides multiple psychological experiences, allows different social interactions, reduces overuse injuries and generally means that children and adolescences play sport for longer.
Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes.Brenner JS, - Pediatrics - September 1, 2016; 138 (3)
When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? Feeley BT, Agel J, LaPrade RF - Am J Sports Med - January 1, 2016; 44 (1); 234-41
Youth sports specialization and musculoskeletal injury: a systematic review of the literature.Fabricant PD, Lakomkin N, Sugimoto D, Tepolt FA, Stracciolini A, Kocher MS - Phys Sportsmed - September 1, 2016; 44 (3); 257-62