Google+ Blueprint for Football: How Early Specialisation is Ruining Kids

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How Early Specialisation is Ruining Kids

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So, this is how it normally goes.  You, a passionate football fan, take your son or daughter to practice as soon as they’re old enough.  Hopefully you’re enlightened enough not to put too much pressure on them to prove that they’re a great talent but, still, there is that hope in you.  And, unless they’re complete failures – which, in truth, most kids aren’t – or they really hate it you keep on taking them.

After all, everyone knows that with enough practise of the right sort experts can be developed.  Who hasn’t heard of Ericsson’s 10,000 hour theory made famous by Malcolm Gladwell?

All of this is fine, as long as the kids are enjoying themselves.  They might not turn out to be the football stars that you’re secretly hoping they become but their regular attendance is not only keeping them healthy but it is also indirectly instilling in them habits that will help them in other areas.
What could be a problem, however, is if they are forced to keep practising one sport – and just one sport – in the vain hope that they put in the required hours because the truth is that this isn’t helping them.  In fact, it could be doing the opposite.

“There is a huge body of evidence now growing that suggests that to specialise in one sport at an early age is actually detrimental upon performance.” So says Dr. Martin Toms, Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the School of Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

Early Specialisation is Ruining Kids [Tweet This]

“There is no doubt that young people grow, change and develop at different rates and at different ages.  So, specialising at a young age is a real problem when the Bio-Psycho-Social changes that occur during puberty can get in the way.”

“There is a vast amount of work now out there that provides peer reviewed evidence to suggest that early specialisation can lead to injury; psychological and social burnout; and the loss of wider sporting skills that a young person might wish to use in the future.”

The best thing then is to encourage kids to try out as many sports as they can.  “The expectation and evidence would suggest that sampling behaviour - when you play the most number of sports at organised level - should occur throughout most of the secondary School age period of eleven to sixteen.”

 “This is less to do with physiology and ability and more to do with availability of opportunity and the age group systems we have in sport in the UK. Certainly throughout later primary years and early secondary years – between the ages of ten and fifteen - kids should be given the opportunity to experience as many activities as they wish without pressure to select one or two to specialise in. But this will depend upon availability and opportunity both of which are linked to many other factors.”

Whilst there seems to be a consensus over the desirability of practising a number of sports, the age at which one should start specialising isn’t that clear cut.

“The growing evidence suggests again that the ideal age at which to specialise entirely in one sport is the age when people are physically, psychologically and socially mature enough to cope,” answers Dr. Toms.  “We must remember how differently people develop, so there is no point working on a small 10 year old to become a race horse jockey – since they may well end up over 6 feet tall by the time they reach 18!”

“In other words, we do not develop in a linear fashion, puberty has a huge amount of influence and so ability as well as talent change as people grow and develop. Co-ordination being a key leveller as young people grow up.”

“So, the age that people should specialise is actually highly individual and based upon their Bio-Psycho-Social development and technically this would be around 18.”

“However, realistically I would argue that between sixteen and eighteen is probably where specialisation will begin to occur, but I would urge all people reading this not to specialise in one activity, but play at least two other sports at an organised level for as long as you can. In fact, consider the most skill transfer compatible sports to support your main one too!”

Indeed, that of transferring different skills from one sport to another is the main argument in favour of non-specialisation “From my own published research , there is a definite link between playing four or five sports at the age of fourteen and achieving representative level in (at least) one of these sports by the age of eighteen.”

There Is No Need For Academies To Demand That Kids Only Play Football [Tweet This]

All of this flies in the face of arguments that football clubs have vociferously made over the years regarding the need to have exclusive access to players from a very early age, stopping them from playing not only other sports but even football for other teams.  Could this stance be down to football being a team sport and, as a result, more complex to coach?

“No, I don’t believe that is the case,” comes the reply. “Whilst it is true that the intricacies and complexities are possibly more difficult to grasp than some other sports, the conversations I and many other colleagues have had, suggests that clubs asking children to play exclusively is down to other issues.”

“These include issues like the belief that it will reduce the risk of injury and they might receive conflicting coaching advice. However, there is also the accusation often pointed out that this is about power and control over a young person. With a future ‘career’ at risk, would the young person do anything else but comply?  Unlikely, even when the statistics for ‘making it’ at professional level are stacked against you: approximately 99.8% of children will not make it.”

“The argument for stopping this 99% from playing other sports whilst they are on contract can actually be argued to be detrimental to the whole of British sport. I have heard it argued that there are thousands of talented young sportspeople who are lost to other sports because they are unable to develop those skills at any competitive level whilst on contract to a club. Bearing in mind so few actually make it to the top level, this creates a very interesting moral and philosophical thought for us all to consider – regardless of our agendas – when we think about a young person’s development and wider sporting potential.”

Indeed, the belief that early specialisation is essential could be down to a myth.

“The culture of sport in the UK likes to adopt ideas from other countries, and often these are not easily compatible with what we do. For instance, the ideas from the Eastern Bloc such as the former USSR and, latterly, China of ‘identifying’ talented kids at a young age and producing Olympic champions is actually a myth.”

The Belief That Early Specialisation Is Essential Could Be Down To A Myth [Tweet This]

“In fact, they are simply playing the numbers game when there are tensof thousands of kids, if not more, who start out and then one or two Olympic champions are produced.  Does that means that the system is a success?”

“The numbers game will always work – but at what cost to the young people involved and their futures?”

If anything, research carried out by Dr Toms himself indicates that by pushing just one sport shows that rather than providing better athletes leads to more people dropping out from that sport.

“There are a number of sound reasons for this, and this is something we are further exploring. Taking part in more than one sport allows kids to develop a number of key skills – not just sport specific/related, but also skills such as balance, spatial awareness and social skills.”
“As children develop at different rates, and puberty can actually ‘stop’ participation in an activity through growth changes, it spreads the risk of drop out. In other words, playing multiple sports allows for more opportunity in the future. It’s not so much about spreading risk, but about spreading opportunity.”

“The wider informal learning opportunity from (and across) different sports is key to personal, social and psychological development, and can certainly influence participation levels and rates.”

“Playing more than one sport allows ‘time out’ from the other activity and will help prevent drop out and burn out.”

“There are many transferable skills across sports.  In short, there are far more positive reasons for young people TO play a number of sports than not to do so.”

You can - and should - follow Martin Toms’ work via Twitter

1 comment:

  1. If you force kids to do anything against their will it will be a failure. There are many examples of successful players who chose to specialise early, in fact when I grew up there wasn't a choice and there were plenty of good players in those days. It depends who you ask??