by Mark Spivey
I particularly enjoyed watching the European Athletics Championships in Berlin over the summer and one of the most thrilling events for me was watching the final of the men’s pole vault.
Several athletes jumped in excess of 5.90 metres and the winning jump of 6.05 metres, fourth on the all-time list, was by a competitor who was just 17 years of age.
This got me thinking about early specialisation, its value and how someone this age could record such a performance.
There is no single pathway to sporting success but research and evidence suggests that early specialisation should be avoided in order to improve future elite performance success.
Research into specialisation goes back many decades but it was not until the 2000s that early and late specialisation sports were being identified.
Sports with a high artistic and/or acrobatic content, where very early sport-specific training is necessary for future excellence were labelled as early specialisation sports while most other sports such as team sports, combat sports and racket sports were considered to be late specialisation sports.
Although focusing on one sport develops skill, coordination, and sport-specific fitness necessary for performance, it can limit the development of other specific skills that may be transferred into other sports.
It is argued that young athletes who sample a wider variety of sports experience a larger range of movement and decision-making experience and skills, and this contributes to their holistic development and to their sporting success in later life.
It is also argued that developing one-dimensional athletes can also contribute to a one-dimensional self-concept – that is an athlete who has an inability to cope with other sporting and life challenges due to their narrow experience focus.
Contrary to the research, some do believe that early single sport specialisation is essential for future elite sporting success and that a higher level of performance in youth sports predicts future sporting success.
Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of young high performing sportspeople who fail to take the next step. In some sectors, youth sport has focused more on competition results rather than the overall, physical, technical, tactical and emotional development of the athlete.
This emphasis on competition success in the early years can, and has, created a pressure to begin high-intensity training and single sport specialisation in childhood with some parents and coaches fearing that not specialising early will place the child athlete at a disadvantage in achieving future sport-related goals.
The question often raised here is ‘whose goals are they?’ Unfortunately, I have seen this happen in strength and conditioning where adult programmes are applied to pre-pubescent athletes leading to a failure to establish a substantial conditioning and/or movement competency base.
Building a solid structural strength & conditioning foundation, through a progressive programme, which encompasses physical conditioning and movement competency, is imperative if high performance sport is the goal.
It is widely felt, and supported by numerous research studies, that to perform at the elite level sports specific skill development is necessary. However, intense single sport specialisation should be delayed until late adolescence.
Late specialisation also helps to avoid many of the excessive physical and psychological stress risks associated with early specialisation. Obviously, although there will be a few exceptions to this rule, successful athletes who were hot-housed from a very early age are rare.
The pole vaulter that I mentioned earlier is a very special athlete. He is genetically gifted having a mother and father who were international athletes in their own right. His father, his technical coach, was a world leading pole vaulter in the 1990s and his mother, his conditioning coach, an ex-international heptathlete.
He was basically born with a pole vault pole in his hand and he holds multiple world records from U7 through to U20. He is very well conditioned and has also run 10.57 for the 100m this year, at 17 years of age.
If we look at the early or late specialisation sports labels that were mentioned above, this sport could possibly fall into the early specialisation sport category due to its artistic/acrobatic content.
This is a very rare case and I am sure that this individual would not have performed to this level had he (a) not been genetically gifted, (b) not completed a very well structured and planned physical preparation programme and (c) not completed a comprehensive technical development programme from a very early age.
Early specialisation may have its place in some sports but, for success, many components must be aligned and optimally functioning for this to happen.
Mark Spivey is head of performance, fitness and wellbeing at Sherborne Girls School
The pros and cons of early specialisation