The Late Specialisation Concept

As sports coaches we regularly meet parents of children who have a passion for one sport that they excel in and want to spend all of their time outside of the classroom playing. Whilst it can be very tempting to encourage your child to focus purely on this passion from a young age, the sports science related research suggests that this strategy could hamper their chance of long-term success. In this article we explore the concepts of late specialisation and long term athletic development, which suggest that children who take part in multiple sports until their teenage years statistically speaking have the best chances of maximising their potential:

Active Start
When children are below the age of six the emphasis should be on the development of gross motor skills, coordination and teamwork skills. At this age the emphasis of children’s sporting activity should be all about fun, engagement and high energy activities that allow children to be active and achieve tasks whilst interacting with other children within the group.Fundamentals
When children are between the ages of six to nine they should take part in as many different forms of sports coaching and physical activity as possible. The aim here is to develop strong fundamental movement skills such as jumping, throwing, catching and balance. These skills are best developed through a broad mix of activities that incorporate the use of the whole body.

Learn To Train
When children are between the ages of eight to eleven for girls and nine to twelve for boys, or just before the onset of the growth spurt the goal should be to keep children’s sporting focus broad through involvement in multiple activities. Whilst it can be tempting to have your child specialise on the one sport or position (for team sports) that they show the most promise this can be detrimental to long term development. Research shows that children who specialise too early have increased risks of injury, burnout and one sided physical development all of which can hinder a child’s ultimate peak performance levels as an adult.

Train To Train
Between the ages of eleven to fifteen for girls and twelve to sixteen for boys children are now in an accelerated developmental window and should aim to develop strength, speed and an aerobic base. In terms of technical skill development at this age children should be more focussed on processes and form rather than outcome as this will ensure that good technique and avoid comparisons to other players who may be more or less physiologically developed depending on their development age. During this period children should be involved in at least two sports in order to maintain a broad skill set.

Train To Compete
From the age of sixteen onwards children can choose to either specialise in one sport, if they want to pursue elite performance, or alternatively keep multiple sports on the go if they want to play at a more recreational level. For elite performers at this age it is recommended to keep a personalised training programme from your coach and instructor that focuses on the technical, biomechanical and psychological aspects of the sport that they wish to pursue.

An Example From Professional Sports

A study conducted in relation to the American Football NFL is a great example demonstrating that children who play multiple sports in their younger make up a higher proportion of NFL drafts than those who specialised in one sport make up a small proportion of the draft than athletes that played multiple sports in high school.

Sports Played % Of Drafts
4 Sports 4.3%
3 Sports 34.8%
2 Sports 49.2%
Football Only 11.7%

Personal Examples

Within our team of professional sports coaches at Kidster we can say from experience that the long term athlete development concept of late specialisation has helped us on our way to success. All of the professional sports coaches in our team played at least 3 sports whilst under the age of ten before narrowing down our focus towards one passion in our teenage years. Speaking from personal experience whilst in primary school I was involved in tennis, football, cricket and badminton before later specialising and becoming a PGA Golf Professional!

Here is the Kidster programme director Marcus giving you an idea of how the concept of long term athlete development is built into the Kidster programme.

Wider Application To Lifetime Sports

Of course not every child will become a professional athlete but even considering that it is still a great idea to give your children a broad range of sporting experiences at a young age. Parents should aim to give children experiences in a varied mixture of sports such as tennis, gymnastics and dance. This will allow students to develop attributes such as hand eye coordination, rhythm and flexibility. These transferable skills will help your child to become well rounded and natural athletes who can pick up new sports in later life more easily and get involved in a wide variety of social sports to stay active, socialise and network as an adult. The key takeaway here is that the goal of late specialisation in sport is to maximise the potential of every child, whether this means them becoming a social sports player, club competitor or an olympic athlete.

The Hartland Enrichment Programme

Children attending Hartland International School get the chance to experience a broad variety of sports through the enrichment programme, which runs on a weekly basis. In this unique offering children get to experience a variety of sports, coached by external sports professionals, giving children the broad skill sets that they need to maximise their potential. My advice to parents with the enrichment programme would be to give your children the chance to try a mix of activities each academic year, so that they can reap the benefits of late specialisation in sports.

What About Outside Of School?

I hope that you have found this article useful and informative in helping you to guide your child to success in youth sports. If you would like to give your child the opportunity to try some new sports this academic year outside of school hours then a great way to do this is through Kids DXB’s Kidster Programme which is based here at Hartland International School every Friday and Saturday. With 8 different sports on offer including our popular Football and Basketball programmes there is something for everyone with structured 1 hour coaching sessions running throughout the day. Kidster offers a 30 day trial period so that you can get a full experience of the programme to get a feel for the sports coaching on offer.

Tom Green | Kids DXB

Tom is the Director of Kids DXB, an avid sportsman Tom was involved in football, basketball, tennis, baseball and cricket as a youngster before later becoming a PGA Golf Professional. Having lived in Dubai since the age of 15 Tom has a strong knowledge of youth sport in Dubai and is passionate about the development of young athletes.