October 24, 2021

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Fitness: How soon should young athletes start nurturing their Olympic dream?

The International Olympic Committee warns against specializing in a single sport too soon.

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One of the most significant Olympic legacies is a post-Games uptick in kids’ sports participation. Inspired by the performances of the world’s best athletes, youth around the world start dreaming of standing on a podium with a gold medal around their neck. The question is: How soon should kids begin working on their Olympic dream?

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There’s no easy answer, but the International Olympic Committee warns against specializing in a single sport too soon. In a consensus statement on youth athletic development, the IOC acknowledges the trend of asking young athletes to concentrate on a single sport at an early age and the “increase in competitiveness and professionalization within youth sport itself.”

The concern that kids and their parents are taking sports too seriously too soon is echoed by associations including the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the U.S. National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. Their beef with early specialization is that it increases the risk of injury and burnout and, more importantly, dampens the initial love and enthusiasm for sport.

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It’s not just professionals with a health affiliation who question the value of early sports specialization, defined as intensive training or competition in organized sport by prepubescent children (younger than 12) for more than eight months per year, with focus on a single sport to the exclusion of other sports and free play. Most national sports organizations echo their concern, understanding that injury and burnout cause kids to drop out of sports — which narrows their pipeline of emerging talent.

In fact, an increasing number of long-term athlete development plans encourage sports sampling rather than specialization at a young age, despite high-profile examples of young phenoms like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams. Less well known is that for every Woods or Williams, there is a Roger Federer, whose mother encouraged him to play a variety of sports including badminton, cricket and basketball before he chose tennis; a Michael Phelps, who tried his hand at soccer, lacrosse and baseball prior to swimming; or a Michael Jordan, who played baseball and football in addition to basketball.

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That doesn’t stop coaches and parents from believing that early acquisition of the skills needed to excel in a specific sport is the key to long-term success, leaning into the fact that early identification as a promising athlete increases access to the best coaches, higher levels of competition and quality training facilities. It’s a scenario played out over and over again in youth sport. And with college scholarships and big-money professional contracts on the line, it’s one more reason to push kids to excel early.

Yet despite the trend toward specialization, there are those who believe children are better served by sampling a variety of sports in their early years, picking up the fundamentals of movement — including running, jumping, throwing and catching — that are the hallmarks of most athletic endeavours before specializing in a single sport in their early to mid-teens or later.

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Admittedly, there are sports that demand a high degree of technical skill and specialized movement patterns that are best developed prior to puberty. These are known as early development sports, and include gymnastics, diving, swimming and tennis. But others — like rugby, water polo, rowing, triathlon, decathlon and heptathlon — look for all-around athletes who are accomplished in more than one sport.

One of the best ways to determine whether early sampling or specialization is the key to athletic achievement is to review the pathway to success of the world’s best athletes. With this in mind, a team of exercise scientists from the United States and Germany reviewed 51 international studies questioning the effectiveness of early sports specialization versus diversification, creating an overall data set of 6,096 athletes, including 772 of the world’s top performers. The data suggests that most world-class senior-level elite athletes diversified rather than specialized in sport at a young age, while world-class junior-level elite athletes were more likely to be products of early sports specialization.

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Youth and junior provincial and national teams generally select athletes who have achieved early success largely through investing a significant amount of time in sport-specific practice. Yet the performance benefits of early specialization are less significant as these athletes age, and early burnout and overuse injuries come into play, paving the way for athletes who came into the sport later and with more experience in other pursuits.

As important as these findings are for aspiring Olympians, athletes also require other performance-related factors to reach the podium. Mental toughness and resilience, support from parents and coaches, access to good facilities, and genetic factors including but not limited to height, aerobic and muscular power and body composition are all hallmarks of successful athletes. Still, it’s good to know that the path to standing on top of the podium doesn’t have to start with devoting a significant number of childhood hours to perfecting one sport.

Instead, kids should be encouraged to play lots of sports, find their passion and pursue it. They should also be reminded that not making a junior provincial or national team doesn’t necessarily signify the end of an Olympic dream. There are a lot of late bloomers with Olympic gold medals and a history of not making the cut.

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