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Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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1 One sport or many?

One of the dilemmas that parents, coaches and young people face is whether children should focus on one sport and attempt to excel at it or spread their sporting interest across many diverse sports. This is sometimes called the ‘specialisation or sampling’ debate. It is a common question in children’s sport.

Activity 1 Michael Johnson on early specialisation

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch the following video with Michael Johnson (multiple Olympic gold medallist in 200 m and 400 m sprints, and former world record holder), where he discusses early childhood specialisation with the author David Epstein and others. The evidence falls strongly in support of the diverse sampling of a range of sports over early specialisation. What arguments from this video might you use if you were talking to a 12 year old or their parent or coach against specialising? Write down some of the key phrases used to help remind you of the main arguments.

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The key words/phrases you noted might include: ‘wrong sport’, ‘enjoyment/fun’, ‘injury’, ‘body awareness’ or ‘early selection’. Some of these merit a little more explanation. For example, the reference to ‘wrong sport’ suggests that people are physically or mentally suited to different sports and, by sampling a range of sports, we are more likely to come across the sport most suited to us. In sampling, you also develop a broader range of movement patterns and ‘body awareness’. The danger is that ‘early selection’ of children for specialist training risks killing off the enthusiasm that they will need to maintain for many years if they pursue the sport.

Epstein mentioned an uncertainty over the idea of sampling sports applying to golf, but ask yourself this: do 15 year olds win world class adult golf events? The principle to apply here is whether elite adult performance before puberty is possible. Junior golfers, to the best of our knowledge, have not won adult major events, but in girl’s gymnastics this has occurred (and this success is discussed later in this session).

Those working in sports such as professional football, gymnastics, figure skating and maybe even tennis and golf would have mixed opinions on specialisation versus sampling. In the next section you get a taste of such views.