In this post we shall be exploring the subject of when, why and how a child becomes a specialist in a single sport. We shall discuss some of the reasons it happens, how it happens and the implications that you as a parent need to consider.
Choosing one sport.
Almost every child involved in sport will at some stage (especially if they show themselves a talented player) will be asked or will choose to pursue one sport over others they may play. Sometimes it will be a natural choice made entirely by your child and the way they develop. Often however, it is imposed by circumstances or by pressure from outside influences like the coaches of the sports.
Why one sport? Why many sports?
Choosing to practise one sport is a sensible decision, there is an old saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”. By focussing on a single sport, your child will spend more time developing the skills and athletic abilities required for that sport. So rather than being good at several sports, the idea is that your child will become excellent at one sport. Your child may also be great at one sport they play and below average at the others they play. So choosing the one sport they are good at makes sense again. Equally (or even more so) they may enjoy one sport more than the others and want to spend more time enjoying themselves at this sport.
The otherside of the coin is that by playing a variety of sports your child develops a broader range of physical skills and ability. If they run and swim and play a ball sport and do Judo (of course); then they develop a wider range of abilities than if they only ran.
Is specialisation bad?
Specialisation in a single sport is not inherently bad, there are some substantial positives to doing it. We all do it, there are not many of us that have multiple jobs or on the sporting side played multiple sports to high levels. So choosing one sport may well be the first step towards your child becoming and elite athlete.
The opposite view of this is that if your child focuses purely on sprinting from young age and stops swimming, doing gymnastics and of course Judo; then as an adult they may not be a strong swimmer or be able to play the odd game of tennis with friends.
Of course there is also the benefits of “cross-training” in children to consider if elirte sport is the objective. Doing Ballet will develop flexibility and strength that will help an older Judo player. Swimming and Running develop the aerobic system, which will help any sport. A Judo player who is an accomplished swimmer or runner will have an advantage when it comes to supplementary fitness training over the Judo athlete with poor swimming or running skills.
A gymnastic background will help a Judo athlete; equally a Judo background will help the swimmer, runner and gymnast.
When should my child choose one sport over another?
This is the hard part of this discussion and requires knowledge of two factors (at least). It also requires thought on what you want for your child and what they want to be/do.
The first factor to consider is the age at which athletes in a sport reach their peak. We have all seen the very young gymnasts at the Olympics and the much older footballers, rugby players and Judoka. Each sport has a different age range at which the athletes seem to peak. In Judo we can say that players peak at around 25 years of age (based on figures from 2009 World Cup events). If we use the now commonly figure of 10 years development to reach your peak, then the average Judo player needs to be specialising in Judo at around 15 years of age. We also need to consider the physical development of each child, for example if your child is a late physical developer, then specialisation in a single sport could be done later in life than the early physical developer. Equally, emotional maturity needs to be considered.
The second factor that affects when a child specialises in a single sport is the business of sport and the talent model employed by many sports.
By this we mean that most sports (at least in western countries like here in the U.K.) use the pyramid model for talent. This model works on the idea that if 1 in a hundred children doing a sport are going to become elite athletes then by increasing the participation base (base of the pyramid), then more elite players will rise to the top of the pyramid. So if a sport has 1000 kids doing the sport they might get 10 elite players where as if they have 10,000 kids doing the sport they believe they may get 100 elite players over time.
Also, Judo like many sports, relies on the large childrens participation to survive financially as well as competitively. Each childs membership fee helps pay for the elite programme and each child in the sport is another potential elite athlete.
Lastly, there is the competition between sports for talent. If your child is athletically gifted I want them in my Judo class, as does the swimming coach, the gymnastics coach and the tennis coach.
Gymnastics here in the UK is probably the best example of how the business of sport affects specialisation. Children can start in gymnastics from the age they can crawl. So by the time Judo clubs were ready to accept my children, they had already been doing Judo for a number of years. We as parents had invested many hours and money in gymnastics. Gymnastics was already part of my kids lives and they had friends in the club. This continues as they get older and moving to another sport becomes harder and harder.
Gymnastics trumps Judo, because by the time the British Judo Association starts to be interested in your child, your child has been courted or engaged by British Gymnastics for a number of years! When it comes to specialisation, the same thing happens; gymnastic clubs start trying to get kids doing more and more gymnastics well before Judo clubs, so by the time Judo wants your child to “take it a bit serious” they may well have already been lost to swimming, gymnastics, tennis or other sports.
This business model affects when clubs start asking parents to choose one sport over another. These pressures or norms for each sport may mean that your child is being asked to specialise not so much to match their development as an individual or even for performance in the sport but because it feeds the sport as a business. I do not intend to paint this as a negative picture; personally I think gymnastics here in the UK have the right idea. They have classes for all ages and abilities and the good clubs provide excellent facilities and coaching and develop your childs potential well; be that towards a Olympic medal or just being a physically capable adult.
So how do I decide when my child should choose a single sport?
I hope that the text above has given you an understanding of the reasons your child should specialise in a single sport and that it has also given you insight into the other factors that will affect when clubs start asking/expecting your child to do more.
My personal view is that the mid to late teenage years is about the right time for a child to start specialising in a single sport. Up to that stage the benefits of cross training are very valuable and on the whole specialism gives to little to make it worth doing. 12-18 years would be the age range where I would want to see a child start moving from multiple sports for fun to multiple sports with more of a developmental focus, then moving in the older end of that age range to choosing a sport to focus on and become an athlete of that sport.
I do see it as a 6 year process, which goes from multiple sports to a single sport. If you 10 year old is only doing one sport (or two) then perhaps you might involve them in more sport. Especially if the sports are not broad in scope. So for example if your child plays football and cricket (two ball sports played in teams), you might involve them in individual sports that do not involve balls. Your child may find they prefer individual sports. Even if in the long run they return to football (for example) the physical development and skills they learn from the other sports will make them a more rounded football athlete when they do eventually choose to be a footballer.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought as a parent (or coach or player), being narrowly focussed is the path to high performance in any area (including sport). The timing and the reasons for making the decision to focus on one sport need to be made with an understanding of the various factors involved; and as always with a view to what is best for your child in the long-term.
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