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Is it necessary for young athletes to specialise early to become elite?

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Early specialisation occurs when an athlete focuses on a single sport at the exclusion of others. We often see in the media that it is common that many elite athletes specialise in their sport at a young age, usually around the age of 11.

Most youth club athletes believe that specialisation will improve their performance and the chances of making club or county level.


It is a proven myth that early specialisation can improve your chances of reaching elite athlete status this is due to many factors. Competitors are more likely to develop overuse injuries. In high/secondary schools, overuse injuries account for 46-50% of all athletic injuries. These can affect the athlete's sport participation whilst also impacting on the athlete's personal life. To avoid this the children should engage in youth strength training to reduce the risk of developing overuse injuries as the key muscles, tendons and bones will be strengthened.


Also, when an athlete specialises at a young age it can have a psychological affect. Excessive pressure from participating in sport as well as coping with school can lead to the athlete dropping out of sports all together.


However, others argue that early specialisation is key to becoming an elite athlete. I read a book titled 'Bounce'. Matthew Syed discusses his views on the 10,000 hour rule- that you need to practise a skill for over 10,000 hours to become an expert at it. Therefore, for an athlete to become elite 10,000 hours of practise is needed- however, if they did not specialise into the sport until they were older (around the age of 15 to 16) they would not complete this 10,000 hours of practise. Many argue that early specialisation of athletes is key to success due to increased contact time with coaches- ultimately improving their performance.


I believe it is key to monitor early specialisation in athletes as it can cause many negative effects both physically and mentally.


I recently listened to a podcast on 'Don't tell me the score' where Laura Muir was being interviewed about her career as a specialist in the 800m, 1500m, 3000m and 5000m. She began to specialise later at around the age of 17- from her outstanding achievements we can clearly see that late specialisation still can lead to success.


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