Specialization

By Wil Fleming

 

As coaches we no doubt know about the pitfalls of early specialization when it comes to young athletes.

Despite much evidence that early specialization can lead to higher levels of burnout and dropout, many coaches still believe that the only way athletes can reach 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is to begin specialization at an extremely early age.

Recently several researchers (Moesch, Elbe, Haube and Wikman) published a very interesting article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Sport Science examining just this theory and has amazing implications for the coaching in your program.

The researchers asked elite athletes and near elite athletes to answer questions about their experiences in athletics regarding their training and practice throughout their career.

  • The near-elite athletes actually accumulated more hours of training than the elite athletes prior to age 15.
  • By age 18 the elite athletes had accumulated an equal number of hours training to the near elite athletes.
  • From age 18-21 elite athletes accumulate more training hours than near elite athletes.
  • Elite athletes said that they passed significant points in their career (first competition, starting a sport) at later dates than the near elite athletes.

This reporting suggests that athletes do need to accumulate great amounts of hours training to get to an elite status, but also suggest that the critical time may not be extremely early in their career. Rather, it suggests that after a period of great diversification in athletic endeavors, athletes will ultimately be more successful.

As far as implications in our coaching it is easy to see that we can play a very important role in developing athletes at a critical period in young athletes’ lives. Both before the age of 15 but also in a period that has been shown in this study to be the most crucial in determining ultimate success (age 15-18).

Not all of the athletes, in fact very few of the athletes, that we encounter will reach the elite, national team status, but all of the athletes we work with deserve the best programming and coaching that we can provide. We can provide this exact system to each and every athlete we encounter.

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