Lots of interesting pieces out there with regard to early sampling/ diversification v  early specialisation. I have decided to gather my thought s from my previous blogs and try to formulate my thoughts and the thoughts of others in one blog post.


Allow children to play more sports with the emphasis on PLAY.

There is an ever increasing pressure and demand on children to focus on one sport and to play the adult game. This is creating a counterproductive culture that drives the specialisation age down. The landscape for the hearts and minds of our children is being turned in to a race to the bottom. Sports science has shown that this pathway can lead to serious injuries and a lower level of expected success.

The majority of research supports the argument that early specialisation, despite what can be interpreted as early success (making the team, winning the league) can contribute too many problems in the long-term.

1. Negative effects on development over a longer period of time where the problems of burn out and drop out are more evident. (Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996).

2. High injury rates and less enjoyment.  (Côté & FraserThomas, 2008; Jayanthi, 2012; Law et al.,  2007)

3. Psychological problems (Baker,  2003, Dalton, 1992)

4. Social exclusion (Wiersma,  2000);   

 5. Limited range of fundamental movement skills ( motor skills) (Wiersma, 2000)

 6.  Lower level of participation in adulthood.(Russell & Limle, 2013)

Former Swedish Olympic sports physician Klas Östberg has spoken out about the high injury rates. He is in a good position to do this, after all these children are his patients. The amount of children visiting him with serious sports injuries is increasing every year.

“I am regularly dealing with these children from elite talent programs as patients. Many have bone/skeletal disorder that not even Swedish orthopedists have seen before. On an increasingly more frequent basis I am meeting children with life-long injuries”.

It seems that these problems arise when children are trained like adults. This not only leads to injury but there may also be social and psychological costs.  Many of these specialised elite programs are also carried out without sufficient medical supervision.

So what are the roots of this early specialisation phenomenon? Where does it come from? It is hardly a child’s invention?  Early specialisation definitely has a large element of adult self- interest about it where children’s sport and how the child experiences the sport is been compromised more and more by the business of sport. Despite the claims made by science, the market for a better word does encourage a “focus on one sport and train hard” model. This adult driven environment is merely betting on talent, it marginalises children and it means that we neglect what sport can give to children and our society when it comes to fun, exercise and an interest for life.

The societal expectations through professional sport has screwed up our focus on learning and development of children in sport- Dr Lynn Kidman

The early specialisation pathway means that the child focuses on one sport in a highly organised sporting environment. Early specialisation models are mostly built on the belief of deliberate and focused practice, rather than just free play. This environment rewards early success and performance with early selection to elite programs. It is a model for promoting and achieving short term goals.

 If success at elite level of the sport is characterised by reaching peak performance in adulthood then naturally the focus of the coach should not be on winning the under 9’s cup. But with so many these  early selection/specialisation academies being result orientated to justify their existence, there is a huge risk that children are been coached to win rather than been coached to learn the game and to learn to think for themselves.

Talent development in any sport is a complex, dynamic, non-linear process. There is little consistent evidence that links early intense training with becoming an elite level athlete. Early prediction of talent years in advance of adulthood is almost impossible as numerous other factors come in to play in the development of sports skills and no formal pathway predicts success.  What we know is that we don’t know.

What are these other factors?   


It can be argued that a model that selects its “talent” early and forces specialisation fails to take in to account its social, psychological and physical shortcomings therefore not allowing for the complexity of human development.


The 10,000 hour rule has a lot to answer for. Who decided that this was a rule?

 It seems to be a popular internet view (Ericsson 2012).

 It does however give credence to those who benefit from it being applied within their sporting organisation. I can almost hear the sports director of club X giving a presentation to a parent group saying that your son/daughter must practice one sport for 10,000 hours to reach the elite level. Therefore it is better that they focus on one sport. We will supply extra training at a cost of ……….  

Essentially a belief that is based on repetitive skills is used to explain how to achieve excellence in a sport that is based on dynamic skills while at the same time ignoring many factors represented in the diagram above that combine to help shape and develop skill acquisition and performance.

The 10,000 hours theory ignores the bio-psycho- social aspects of development. Dr Martin Toms


Sampling/Diversification before adolescence

It should never be seen as a problem that a child wants to participate in many different sports.

Early diversification is beneficial to long-term talent development in sport. It can lengthen playing careers (Barynina, Vaitsekovski, 1992), and provide a higher level of physical capacity and a more all-round motor skill base – Physical Literacy.

The research work of Job Fransen a doctor of movement and sports science from the University of Ghent in Belgium suggests that children should sample a variety of sports rather than focusing all their efforts on a single sport.  A better development of fundamental movement skills (FMS) is encouraged by the variety of movement used when a child is active in more than one sport (Bailey et al. 2010; Côté, et al., 2009). Early specialisation narrows the movement repertoire.

Well known to this parish Dr Martin Toms has carried out a study on 1000 athletes that suggested that early specialisation in one sport could be detrimental to success and that sampling a number of sports is a better is a more beneficial pathway to take.

Neeru Jayanthi did a 3 year longitudinal study from his position as director of primary care sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago. His research revealed that kids who specialised had increased the risk of suffering a serious injury due to overuse by 36%.  The study showed that sampling/diversification had a positive effect on long term health. Kids who played different sports earlier benefited from not just only having a wider range of movement skills but possessed a higher level of anticipation and understanding of game situations due to the transfer of “skill learning” from one sport to another.


Skill Transfer

Early diversification provides us with great potential for a more holistic learning and benefit from the transfer of skills from one sport to another. It was suggested through research by Baker et al (2003) that when the sampling of sports was encouraged in early years the athletes involved benefited from  developing a better understanding of pattern recognition and decision making. If we couple this research with that of Marije Elferink-Gemser from the University of Groningen (Netherlands) we get a clearer picture. Gemser noted that in a study of elite Dutch footballers, progress from youth to professional level is highly dependent on the player’s ability to understand the tactical concepts and to put them into practice (pattern recognition). The ability to be in the right place at the right time and to make correct decisions is the most important factor in determining future success.

Emphasise Play  

The term “deliberate play “coined by Côté refers to activities that maximise enjoyment, give immediate gratification and are intrinsically motivating. It requires minimal equipment and allows children to experiment with rules, tactics etc  (Bailey  et  al.  2010;  Côté,  et  al., 2009). 

All you need are the players in an empty space with a ball. We should add nothing to it unless it helps.

It is during adolescence that children need to take ownership of their own development. This ownership needs to be discovered and not forced upon them during childhood.  Allowing the child to fall in love with the sport through play helps develop creativity (Cote, Baker, Abernethy, 2003) and decision making skills.


A study of Australian Rules Football has shown that athletes that experienced greater levels of deliberate play in childhood were superior decision makers when compared to those who did not experience much deliberate play (Berry & Abernethy, 1993).

Recently I watched a bunch of kids where I live, (yes! it seems that in summer 2014 spontaneous football is making a comeback in my area of Stockholm, or perhaps it’s just the World Cup?) imitating Pirlo and Ronaldo, by having a free kick competition. I returned an hour later to see that they were still trying to fine tune this skill. I thought about the learning that was been experienced, in this safe to fail environment, especially by the goalkeeper as each kid varied the position of where the free kick was taken from. How often do they get to practice this in an organised football environment?  This is referenced by (Côté, Baker, & Abernethy, 2007) where seemingly more time is spent focussed on a task in deliberate play than in an organised coach led practice session.

The child must be allowed to light the flame. Play in the early years feeds this flame, makes it fun and develops a love for sport while preparing that child to become more mentally engaged and committed to a sport in adolescence.



Allow children to play more sports with the emphasis on PLAY.

Develop the individual/ athlete beyond the sport.

When it comes to talent: What we know is that we do not know.

Focus on learning rather than the short term performance and results.

The sport belongs to the child.

My ability as a coach is defined by my understanding as to how the player’s learn.

Children learn best by doing.




















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