Early specialisation in sport at school can hinder rather than benefit sporting development, says David Faulkner

Mothers and fathers risk damaging pupils’ enjoyment of rugby, football, hockey and swimming at an early age by failing to behave in a sportsmanlike manner
Early specialisation can hinder rather than benefit sporting development Photo: Alamy
Parents frequently approach me and ask: “At what age should my child specialise in one sport?” My response is always that it needs to be the pupil’s informed decision, with support and guidance from coaches and parents.

As a general guide, we recommend multi-sport participation until late adolescence for most sports. This is because there is clear evidence that wider participation across a breadth of sports is beneficial for long-term well-being and provides greater support for those with potential.

The reaction of some parents is: “But will my child fall behind others involved in a more focused training and competition programme?”

Many of them will have heard of Dr Anders Ericsson’s much publicised rule about the key to success being 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. However, this theory does not take into consideration the physical, emotional and social effects upon young people of playing a single sport.

Evidence shows that talent and enthusiasm in those who specialise in sports between 10 and 12 can dilute away by the age of 15. This is because, ironically, early specialisation can hinder rather than benefit sporting development.

It can lead youngsters into a sport not of their choice, create an intensity that takes away the fun, compromise their athletic development, make them vulnerable to injury, and lead to psychological pressure that can result in burnout.

The dangers of early specialisation have been highlighted by a number of studies, including a consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on reducing risk of burnout and injury in youth sport, which emphasised the benefits of diverse sports training during early to middle adolescence.

These findings have been supported by analysis of Team GB at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, which showed the majority of the high performing athletes – including those who medalled – had come into their sports late, at 16-plus or even later.

David Faulkner, coaching at Millfield

It is widely accepted that there are sports which suit later specialisation, such as rowing, athletics, cricket and now, with recent work by the RFU, rugby.

Sports organisations are increasingly recognising the value of gaining wider skills to improve tactical, technical mental and physical development, and to provide an edge over competitors.

Furthermore, there is growing recognition that coaches have often been falling into the trap of focusing upon young people who appear talented at around the ages of 10 to 13, while ignoring other potentially talented youngsters.

It was with all this in mind that we established the Millfield Institute of Sport and Wellbeing, to formalise what we have already been doing informally to ensure all pupils engage in athletic development, enjoy a variety of sports and provide opportunities to transfer to sports they may have never considered.

The aim is to support every individual to leave Millfield with a holistic toolbox, so that when they progress to university or professional sport they have all they need in terms of technical, physical and mental abilities, together with a wider holistic understanding in areas such as teamwork, leadership, and dealing with setbacks.

By playing a range of sports before deciding upon a specialism, young people achieve a level of athletic development that enables them to deal with higher training levels and to perform more effectively.

This is because they are using their bodies more effectively than they would by focusing upon just one sport, which would result in their motor skills – how they operate – becoming one dimensional, and causing them to hit a physical ceiling.

There is also the issue of injuries – usually hamstring, groin and shoulder – as a result of overplaying the developing body.

Also worth bearing in mind is the valuable social experience gained by pupils involved in a range of sports, either as part of a team or in individual events.

The benefits of good coaching are not solely defined by results achieved at school. The true test will be how pupils are performing in their chosen sports and careers a decade after leaving.

David Faulkner, director of sport at Millfield, and gold medal winner for Team GB Hockey at the 1988 Olympics

7:00AM BST 21 Apr 2015