Should my primary school aged child specialise in one sport, or sample a variety?

Specialising in one sport is defined as participating in a singular sport, intensely, all year round, at the exclusion of all other sports.

Alternatively, Sport Sampling involves children trying a variety of sports and activities.

Biologically

Children with the lowest amounts of diverse sports exposure demonstrated the weakest fundamental motor skills. Studies found that children who participated in more than one sport were stronger, faster, and have more advanced gross motor skills, compared with those who participated in just one.

Lower Risk of Injury 

Encouraging youth athletes to participate in sport sampling may reduce their overall injury risk with the potential benefit of a longer, more competitive playing career. 20%+ of youths drop out of sport because of injury and those involved in early specialisation are less likely to report an injury.

This is due to sampling different sports reducing the susceptibility of overuse injuries due to less repetitive motions.

Psychologically, external factors such as unrealistic expectations set by parents and coaches can result in excessive psychological stress. Giving children autonomy and choice can lead to children taking part in sport and physical activity for intrinsic reasons, rather than an extrinsic pressure to compete and succeed which could ultimately lead to loss of motivation and ultimately burnout.

Also socially, participating in 1 singular sport may limit your child to one peer group, culture or identity with burnout and drop out leading to loss of friendship circles, motivation and happiness.

Sampling promotes long-term participation through the development of motivation, motor skills and autonomy where the focus is on deliberate play rather than deliberate practice.

A high amount of deliberate play during the sampling years (6-12yrs) establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences that children can ultimately bring to their principal sport of interest. Parents and educators should help provide opportunities for free, unstructured play to improve motor skill development during the growing years, which can reduce injury risk during adolescence.

Talent Transfer 

Physical, motor and psychological skills can be transferred directly across related activities to enhance performance in a primary sport.

Rugby & Goalkeeping
Rowing & Cycling
Basketball & Handball
Tennis & Badminton

Luckily in this country we can become allrounders, where you are more likely to become elite. How do we become allrounders? Seasonal activity to transfer talent between sports and this starts in schools. Winter and autumn like rugby and football, spring and summer with athletics and cricket.

 

“I want my child to become a Premier League footballer, so we are only focused on football training”. 

 

While a common misconception is that early specialisation will result in the development of more elite and competitive athletes, data do not support this, in fact early sport sampling is associated with a higher likelihood of attaining an elite sport status.

There may be additional coaching pressures to encourage a young athlete to only participate in a single sport and the promise of greater opportunities in that single sport.

Many successful elite athletes began as early sport samplers and only specialised in their main sport after age 16, although specific sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating require early specialisation.

The Neville brothers both played country cricket, Jack Butland played high level rugby, Michael Jordan had a athletic and a baseball career, Rebecca Romero claimed both Olympic cycling gold and Olympic rowing silver medals and Ellyse Perry became a Cricket World Cup Champion, 2 years after winning the Australian Football W-League and has also represented the national team on 18 occasions.

It is therefore important that children before the age of 12 years are encouraged by their coaches, parents, and other training professionals to participate in sports other than just their ‘‘primary sport”.

 

James Latham

Trust PE Lead

Excelsior Multi Academy Trust