Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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.

Download this video clip.Video player: Michael Johnson on early specialisation
Skip transcript: Michael Johnson on early specialisation

Transcript: Michael Johnson on early specialisation


David, I want to get your opinion on early specialisation in sport because I see it as a big problem in this country, where parents feel that the earlier I get my kid involved in a particular sport, the more time they’re going to have to develop this incredible amount of skill.
Yeah. So I think the burgeoning body of science in this area is suggesting that that early hyperspecialisation is not good in a number of ways. Now, it might get you the best 10-year-old, but it’s not the strategy to get you the best 20-year-old for a number of reasons. One, the earlier you pick, especially pre-puberty, you’re more likely to put the wrong person in the wrong sport.
You’re also more likely to put them psychologically in the wrong sport, right? No matter how gifted you are now, for the most part, it takes a heck of a lot of commitment to get to the very top level because there are other really talented people who are committed. And if you have someone in the wrong psychological fit, I think it’s not very likely they’re going to make it that far.
We have been very involved in elite cycling for many years in the track and field and you definitely see that if young kids, you start to specialise them at a very young age, in the end, they lose the enjoyment of sports. And if at the age of 16, 17, kids don’t have fun anymore in a sport, they will never become an athlete.
I had great experiences playing rugby. I had great experiences playing soccer, football. I had great experiences doing track. I had great experiences with my friends playing all kinds of sport. And all those things will never go away and that’s contributed to the athlete that I am today. Maybe I wouldn’t be as athletic or as physically capable as I am now if I hadn’t have done all the other stuff in the past.
Growing up, I learned a lot from taking part in loads of different sport, not only in athletics doing lots of different events. But the fact that you were doing different sports meant I wasn’t getting bad tennis elbow. It means that my back wasn’t sore from the javelin. It meant that I could always have a rest and recovery from all the different injuries.
And also, by the time I got to skeleton, my body was kind of fresh into that movement pattern. So it wasn’t something that I’d overpracticed and something that I’d got into bad habits with.
The danger is that you would always use the body in exactly the same way, using the same muscle with the same metabolic profile. And the chance to create an overload in a kid is much greater when you specialise than when you present a variety of exercise moves that make him develop as an athlete. And most of the overuse injuries occur because of very specific training at a young age.
Study after study’s coming out now that while elite athletes do train more than sub-elite athletes, they actually train less early on and then in the mid-teen years usually cross over. And before that, they have what’s called a sampling period.
So I think Roger Federer is a great example of this. His parents I think could be described as ‘pully’, not pushy. They said, you can’t focus on tennis yet. You have to play soccer, basketball, badminton before you can focus on tennis.
And it looks like the kids who have become athletes first, learned a range of skills – both the complex neurological skills, like anticipating objects, as well as just developing body awareness – ultimately then pick up any subsequent sport skill more rapidly and are a lot less injury prone and have the chance to find a sport that they might actually be motivated to do for a decade.
I think there are multiple pathways to success and some athletes, whether they’re diversified or specialised, are going to make it for a variety of reasons, physiological and mental. Golf, I think the jury’s out. Hyperspecialisation early may in fact be better. Most sports, I think the evidence is pushing toward it’s not as good.
The earlier you push selection, the more likely you are to put the wrong person in the wrong sport. So I think there are advantages but that we’ve overdone it in early selection.
End transcript: Michael Johnson on early specialisation
Michael Johnson on early specialisation
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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.


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