The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently published a special issue on youth sport. The editorial titled “Debunking early single sport specialization and reshaping the youth sport experience: An NBA perspective” should be of interest to anyone working in talent development and talent identification
The authors, John DiFiori and colleagues, provided a succinct summary of current practice (with regards to early specialization) and compared this to what the evidence suggests.
The reality of early specialization
The authors argue that there are at least two reasons why early specialization exists.
- There is a misconception that early specialization corresponds with greater achievements in adulthood.
- There is an overemphasis on results rather than the developmental process in youth sports.
Consequently, a number of sports clubs are investing in the identification of “talent” from a young age – sometimes as young as 6! (e.g., see academy programs at a number of European soccer clubs). This has resulted in adults encouraging children to specialise in a single sport at a young age.
What does the evidence say?
The authors make the following statements:
“Youth level success has little correlation with long-term success. In some cases, single sport specialisation may even be detrimental to long-term success and performance.”
“In addition, sport-specific training and competition at young ages may prevent young athletes from developing transferable athletic skills and may increase sport burnout and injury rates, though data are currently inconsistent and limited at elite levels.”
(NOTE: references have been removed from these statements)
While some professional athletes tell unique stories of specialization from a young age (e.g., Tiger Woods and the Williams’ sisters), many professional athletes share the story of sampling a range of sports in early childhood. These stories typically involve many hours engaged in non-organised sporting activities, such as play with friends or siblings.
Significantly, sampling sports during early childhood (and thereby delaying specialization) is associated with a number of benefits, including peer socialisation, improved self-esteem, and the opportunity to develop leadership skills.
What are the NBA doing to help the issue?
The NBA and USA Basketball are leading an initiative that promotes a healthy and fun experience in youth sport. The organisations can foresee the long-term benefits of encouraging children to sample multiple sports before choosing to specialise in a single sport. The initiative involves the provision of a number of guidelines for people involved in youth sport.
To help implement change, the NBA and USA Basketball have partnered with a number of sporting organisations, including the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the Young Men’s Christian Association of America.
Hopefully this initiative acts as a template for sporting authorities across the world to follow.