In last week’s blog we discussed some causes of athlete burnout specific to young athletes and competitors. There are many elements that contribute to burnout, but today we will be chasing the slightly controversial topic of ‘early specialisation’.
In many sports, there is an illusion that in order to become a World Champion, the athlete must specialise from a very young age. When they say specialise, they mean only training and developing in the one sport, and focussing 110% of their time and efforts into training for that sport. I can’t even begin to paint a picture of just how many issues arise from this concept so we will address it in terms of burnout. This belief is founded on the idea that the earlier the child specialises in the sport, the more successful they will be later on. That they will develop and progress faster than their competition and achieve more, compared to a child that plays multiple sports and activities. Let’s bust this myth right open!
In Karate specifically, we have seen many early specializes, burn out and leave the sport before the age of 21. Ideally, the athlete should be hitting their prime and medalling at 21, so what’s the deal? What I like to call ‘the terrible toos’: Too much, too soon at too hard an intensity. Ever tried to sprint at the same intensity and speed for 300m? Good luck! You can only go that hard and fast for a short period of time before your body slows itself down.
At Twins we like to focus on long-term athlete development. With the Olympics in our midst it is of paramount importance that our athletes are not just technically ready, but are mentally prepared for what they can achieve. If they are already starting to get tired, losing enthusiasm, lacking passion and viewing training as a chore, then we have red flags to address. In addition, ‘some of the negative consequences of specializing in one sport too early are overuse injuries and chronic injuries such as rotator cuff injuries, stress fractures, and ACL injuries, especially in female athletes. Early specialization also contributes to a one-dimensional self-concept as a result of “a constrained set of life-experiences’ (Balyi et al, 2013).
A positive correlation has been found between children participating in multiple sports at a young age and becoming an elite athlete. This is due to the the athlete’s exposure to a broader range of movement biomechanics and decision-making skills which both contribute to success later in their teenage years. The resounding evidence shows that, in order to reach excellence in elite sport, early specialisation is not, in fact, a determinant, rather the development of “physical literacy” (the body’s ability to engage in multiple planes and styles of movement/coordination) is key to long term success.
So, ‘when sport-specific training begins too early, athletes have less success in their sporting careers. Consequently, late specialization is encouraged (Balyi et al, 2013).
If you would like to learn more about athletic development for children, a book that Sensei Lance has read and taught from is ‘Long Term Athlete Development by Istvan Balyi, Richard Way and Colin Higgs. It is a great read for any parent, coach or athlete to better understand the training principles that underpin the blueprint for creating a World Champion.