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Tuesday, 08 May 2018 15:29

Early Sport Specialisation in Youth Footballers: Why it is Hurting Long-Term Development

Written by  Jamie Henderson
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This article is part of a series by Jamie Henderson that will be coming to Youth Football Scotland on a monthly basis to help educate, provoke thought and encourage discussion with parents, coaches and youth footballers on sport science-related topics to aid youth football development. 
What is Early Sport Specialisation?
Early sport specialisation (ESS) and the impact it has on youth physical development is currently a very hot topic in the global sport science community.
Experts in the field of sport science have spoken of the importance for any parent, coach and youth athlete to educate themselves on why specialisation could be a significant dent in a child’s physical health, mental wellness and chances of achieving their sporting dream.
So, what is ESS? ESS is defined as the youth participation in a sport for a period of 8 months or more per year without participation in any other sports (1). The typical training and playing patterns that many current young footballers experience can result in ESS being a stark reality in Scotland, as seasons can last 9-10 months with a short break until the subsequent pre-season begins with no other sports or activities being performed regularly.
It is correct that exposure to frequent and intense training specific to football is crucial for youth footballers to build the physical foundations and skills required to develop, but what is commonly missing is the concurrent balance of other physical activities and adequate recovery.
The Outcome of ESS
The aforementioned factors play a role in obstructing motor skills development and increasing risk of injury in youth athletes. A 2015 study (2) examining the injury rates of 1190 youth athletes aged between 7 and 18 years old found that those who were ‘highly specialised’ had 2.25 greater odds of sustaining an overuse injury.
This study along with many others suggest that by training for only one sport, a youth athlete will have a smaller spectrum of physical abilities and movement skills that they can transfer into their primary sport causing an increase in injury rates. This also links with the overuse of certain muscle groups/movements patterns and a lack of motor control that is required to be an efficient, well-rounded athlete – specialised athletes will have a reduced ‘physical literacy’.
Therefore, the science suggests that the child who likes to play tennis and golf every Monday and Wednesday night as well as football will have a greater opportunity to develop their movement, coordination, strength, balance and power than the child who plays additional football.
With particular reference to youth football in Scotland, a football season can start in August and will usually last 9-10 months up until the end of May/June. Coaches are also eager to get players back training in pre-season at the end of the same month after a 4-6-week break.
Despite being more common in older youth players (14-18 years old), this is a huge risk factor for improper recovery and physical burnout. The cause of this physical burnout is not that the child is only playing one sport, but more so that they do not have the physical literacy, physical capacity and robustness to be playing one sport so frequently throughout a year with such minimal rest.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that specialisation for team sports such as football should be avoided until middle-adolescence at around 15-16 years old (4). A youth footballer of this age who has played a greater number of sports will be more tolerant to the demands of the long-term football season and will thus have a greater physical performance and reduced likelihood of injury.  
ESS can not only increase injury rates and impede physical development, it can also have psychological implications. Studies have shown that ESS can increase the chances of dropout from sport by hindering psycho-social development and reducing enjoyment for a sport (3).
When speaking on the subject, Dr Russell Martindale – Associate Professor and Head of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University – stated “Specialising early is often associated with a culture and priority of ‘winning’ and therefore ignores the psychological, social and longer term developmental needs of the player. It usually has added pressure of higher training volumes and more serious practice regimes which can undermine motivation and wellbeing.
"There is clear evidence that early specialising is not required to become an elite performer, therefore highlights the need to think carefully about our talent identification and development pathways.”
Consequently, a specialised youth footballer may experience greater pressures to perform well rather than having the freedom to enjoy a multitude of sport/activities, causing a greater risk of drop out from the sport.
The Cause of ESS
The ‘10,000-hour rule’ is a long-standing myth claiming that those aiming to become experts in their chosen field or activity should practice for 10 years or 10,000 hours. Despite being vastly outdated, many coaches and parents still unknowingly follow this by pushing youth footballers to train harder and more frequently to improve, which is a primary reason as to why ESS is common.
Furthermore, pressure from parents, coaches and team-mates can brand the taking part in other sport and physical activity as a counter-productive idea that gets in the way of development as a footballer. Nonetheless, awareness on this area is growing as experts are trying to educate coaches and parents to apply the findings of the emerging body of research, but this is more complex than it seems.  
Solving the Problem
With any subject, there are always grey areas where people should consider thinking. One of the grey areas with regards to ESS lies within how specialised an athlete is.
Instead of thinking of an athlete as either ‘specialised’ or ‘multi-sport’, the majority of Scottish youth footballers will lie somewhere between the two along a spectrum. For this reason, starting off by balancing a young athlete’s primary sport with adequate off-season rest and other enjoyable activities and exercise stimuli throughout the season is a good starting point to reduce the likelihood of specialisation.
By adding in additional sporting activities with a family member or friend on a set night each week and allowing ‘free play’ time with friends on another day, a more balanced approach to youth athletic development will be adhered to. A broad example is shown below:
PE at school and athletics club at night
Football (training)
Badminton with a parent
Football (training)
PE at school
Football (game)
Outdoor playing/activities with friends
This is a very general approach that will not suit every youth athlete but can be considered as a starting point for young people who are only playing football and are in the early stages of adolescence. However, when talking on the subject of rectifying the ESS problem, Dr Martindale also identified that “School PE alone is not the answer to the issue of early specialisation”.
He explained “Education and support for school teachers, coaches, parents, and players at all levels will help this shift in culture and help a wide variety of people to provide good experiences to young people.” Therefore, the change required is down to education of the youth athlete support network to provide greater balance and adequate training methods to allow them to develop optimally.
Another grey area to consider with this topic is that there is no ‘right way’ to becoming a professional athlete or footballer. It would be very unwise to significantly reduce the amount of football a young person plays each week and substitute this for sports and activities that a child doesn’t enjoy.
Despite the growing amount of research showing that national-level athletes across a range of sports were ‘multi-sport’ throughout their adolescence, there still remains a requirement for sport-specific training.
Beginning to solve the problem comes down to moving away from the specialisation side of the youth development spectrum and getting young footballers to lie a bit closer to the ‘multi-sport’ side.
About the author:
Jamie Henderson
BSc Sport and Exercise Science
MSc Sport Performance Enhancement (in studying)
Has previously worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Leith Athletic F.C. and Selkirk F.C.
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