Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Really, are we still talking about Early Specialization in Youth Sport?

Its a constant issue, how much, how early, what type, why?  Not sure what its like in your part of the world, but here in Alberta, its a topic of conversation.  Here is a sample of some of the current interest in this topic:



Newspaper articles:

What is abundantly clear is this is an issue that has not gone away.  At the recent Alberta Sport Leadership conference I attended at session led by Joe Baker from York University.  He is a researcher who has done lots of work in this area.   Web: Twitter @bakerjyorku  At Joe's session, he provided some research based evidence that although the power law of practice states that there is a positive relationship between practice and performance, the best athletes competing as seniors are almost always the ones who had a diversified sport experience until after the adolescent growth spurt.

The four parameters you can look to to see if you're creating an early specialization environment as a coach are the following:

1. early start age in sport
2. early involvement in one sport exclusively
3. early involvement in high intensity training
4. early involvement in competitive sport

When you read the article from the Edmonton Journal about a 9 year old dropping out of spring league in ice hockey, you begin to see that in some sports this really does happen, and to the negative effect of young athletes.  Its easy to pick on a big sport like ice hockey in Canada.  More kids play organized ice hockey in Calgary than live in three of the five biggest cities in Alberta.  Hockey Canada is trying to get the message out that early specialization is not a good thing, but it is a struggle to chart a new course in a sport where early specialization has become mainstream.

Is it an issue in cross country skiing? Sure, in some places, and some communities, I am certain that parents are told, more is better.  And really it works.  13 year olds who ski 500+ hours a year are going to be pretty fit.  The question is: is it the right thing to do to have a 13 year old doing more hours in a year than some 16 year olds.  No matter how keen a young athlete is, or what their early capacity is for training, you've got to ask yourself as a coach - is it the right thing to do? is it in the best interest of the long term development of young athletes.

Winning is fun.  Losing isnt.  Doing too much too early can produce winning results.  But statistics are not on the side of early specialization athletes.

It is refreshing attending a professional conference.  In Alberta our sport leadership conference brings together coaches from all sports once a year to learn from and interact with leading researchers and experts.

Have a great May!

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

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