Early Sports Specialization

19 Dec Early Sports Specialization

Early sports specialization has become increasingly common over the past twenty years in many sports. Sports specialization can be defined as intense training in one sport while excluding participation in other sport (Jayanthi et al., 2013) The specialization has the tendency to addres sthe skill acquisition components of the sport only with minimal attention paid to physiological components associated with general athleticism and maturation(Lloyd et al., 2016). An example would be a junior golfer at the age of six years old participating in only golf the entire year. All time in terms of practice, competitions, and recreational activities would be golf orientated.Participation in any other sport or recreational activity would not be occurring at this age.

 Specialization in a sport is required at a certain age to achieve an elite level, though there is debate as to whether intense practice time must begin during early childhood and the exclusion from other sports to be occurring to maximize potential success (Jayanthi et al., 2013). The opposing argument to early specialization is for a multilateral approach where specialization occurs at a later age with the inclusion of a long-term athletic development program (LTAD). Long-term athlete development is where an athlete will move through a series of developmental stages based upon biological factors such as a growth spurts, commencement of puberty, and not just chronological age (Balyi, Way, Higgs, 2013).  The long-term athlete development model thus considers the maturation status of the child and offers a strategic approach to athlete development via these biological markers (Lloyd & Oliver, 2012).

 Long Term Athlete Development

             A long-term athlete development program from empirical evidence and research appears the more appropriate plan to incorporate in the development of youth athletes. The long-term athlete development follows a seven-stage plan (Balyi et al., 2013). As stated previously, this plan and corresponding stages is based on physiological development not just chronological age, whereas early sports specialization does not take these physiological components into consideration.

The seven stages with the plan changes slightly between early specialization and late specialization sports though the basic components of long-term athlete development consist of the following stages with the chronological age being a guideline only (Balyi et al., 2013). The active start is the initial stage up to approximately the age of six where activities are about play and mastering basic movement skills(Balyi et al., 2013). This stage of development incorporates a variety of body movements with both the brain and body developing function, coordination,posture, balance, social skills, and emotion (Balyu et al., 2013). The variety of activities assists with physiological development in conjunction with gross motor skills associated with sports.

The second stage is fundamentals which will vary for male and female children in terms of chronological age. Though the basic parameters for this stage is 6 to 9 in boys and 6 to 8 in girls (Lloyd et al., 2015). During this stage children participate in a variety of well-structured activities developing fundamental movement skills and overall motor skills including balance, agility, and coordination (Balyi et al., 2013). Fun is the main driver of structured activities in this stage with formal competition being introduced minimally.

 After completion of the second stage, the third stage of long-term athlete development commences. This stage titled, learn to train, occurs at the approximate ages of 8 to 11 in girls and9 to 12 in boys, or until the onset of the growth spurt (Balyi et al., 2013). This is the stage where a variety of foundational sports skills are developed (Lloyd et al., 2015). The focus is on a wide set of skills applicable to many sporting activities. This is the age where a more talented youth athlete may be pushed towards early specialization and excessive competition (Balyi et al., 2013). The drawback of the specialization at this stage is promotion of one-side physical and technical development, increases in the potential for injury due to the amount of competitions, and a potential burnout in the sport (Lloyd et al., 2016).

The fourth stage of long-term athlete development is defined for boys and girls on the onset and duration of the growth spurt (Balyi et al., 2013) The chronological age for boys is typically12 to 16 and 11 to 15 for girls at this stage (Balyi et al.,2013). This is the stage at which individuals are physiological responsive to stimuli and training (Lloyd et al. 2012). During this period an aerobic base,speed, strength, and power are developed with a consolidation of basic sports skills and tactics (Balyi et al., 2013).

The fifth stage of youth development is the train to compete phase (Balyi et al., 2013). This stage continues physiological develop an introduces concepts on how to compete (Lloyd et al., 2015). Specialization can occur at this point if desired with a focus on elevating their skill set within a sport for advancement to higher levels. A second option as this stage exists where the individual will choose to participate in activities in a recreational frame and thereby entering the final stage, the active life stage (Balyi et al., 2013).

The sixth stage is the train to win (Lloyd et al., 2015). This stage is for elite athletes who have been identified with talent in the previous stages (Balyi et al., 2013). Athletes entering this stage will pursue very intense training suitable for collegiate,professional, or international winning performances (Bayli et al., 2013). Personal demands are high for the development of the demands of their chosen sport.

The final stage is the active life (Lloyd et al., 2015). Young athletes can enter this stage at varying ages depending upon levels of talent and sporting interests. This stage if individuals have developed the appropriate motor skills and confidence in previous stages can allow them to be active in sport on a recreational level for the duration of time they choose (Lloyd et al. 2015). For high performance athletes, this stage represents the transition from a competitive career to life long physical activity (Balyi et al., 2013).


            Reviewing literature on an early specialization where a talent development model is present, all base physical skills are developed in more competitive environments with higher demands at every level. Even though early specialization does provide a clear pathway for talent development it does not account for individual differences in growth and maturation (Lloyd et al.,2015). Secondly, early specialization does not take into consideration individual rates of learning, development of cognitive skills, and emotional maturation (Lloyd et al., 2015). An additional shortcoming of early specialization is the inability for such a model to consider the physiological stresses placed upon a body as the level and amount of competition increaseswhich can result in injury (Lloyd et al., 2015). Finally, such models are void of the mental maturation process for an individual progressing through stages of development from early childhood to adult (Lloyd et al. 2015).

            The void of the individual considerations in such early specialization processes such as the talent development model in conjunction with research in which no evidence exists where intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status (Jayanthi et al., 2013) positions a long-term athletic development process as a more viable option for the development of youth in sports. Sports specialization is necessary for the elite and talented individual though the research indicates a more suitable process exists outside of early specialization. A final empirical point from personal experience is the training of youth athletes over the course of the past decade. I am presented frequently with many high school level athletes who at an early age specialized in a sport, primarily golf and tennis, which are now finding in the teenage years competitors who played multiple sports growing up are stronger,faster, and more powerful. These more athletic individuals are now becoming better in their sport of choice relative to the individuals who specialized in one sport at a very early age. Due to personal experiences and review of research on youth athlete development. A youth athletic development model should be grounded in the development of movement competency, physiological development, designed in accordance to maturation windows, and should not be designed around the stated 10,000 hours of practice rule (Lloyd et al.,2015). 


Balyi, I. Way, R. Higgs, C. (2013) Long-term athlete development follows seven stages. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.

Cobley, S. Till, K. O’Hara, J. Cooke, C. Chapman, C.(2014). Variable and changing trajectories in youth athlete development:Further verification in advocating a long-term inclusive tracking approach. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28 (7) 1959-1970.

Jayanthi, N. Pinkman, C. Dugas, L. LaBella, C. Sports specialization in young athletes. Sports health a multidisciplinary approach, 5 (3) 251-257.

Lloyd, R. Cronin, J. Faigenbaum, A. Haff, G. Howard,R. Kraemer, W. Micheli, L. Myer, G. Oliver, J. (2016) National strength and conditioning association position statement on long-term athletic development. Journal of strength and conditioningresearch, 30 (6) 1491-1509.

Lloyd, R. Oliver, J. Faigenbaum, A. Howard, R. De Ste Croix, M. Williams, C. Best, T. Alvar, B. Micheli, L. Thomas, P. Hatfield, D. Cronin, J. Myer, G. (2015) Long-term athletic development part 1: a pathway for all youth. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 29 (5) 1439-1450.

Lloyd, R. Oliver, J. (2012) The youth physical development model: a new approach to long-term athletic development. Strength and conditioning journal, 34(2) 61-69.