How Much is Too Much?

As we roll into another year, fresh from Christmas and New Year festivities, I am sure that everyone is acutely aware that you can have too much of a good thing. This concept certainly applies to kids and sport – especially kids and playing only one sport.

Specialising in one sport at an early age is becoming increasingly common. In a sporting context, specialisation is defined as intensive, year-round training in one sport at the exclusion of other sports. ‘Early’ specialisation means adopting this practice before the age of 12-13. Children who are highly specialised choose a single main sport, may spend more than eight months of the year in one sport and, most importantly, may give up other sports to focus on this main sport.

Early sport specialisation appears to have been fuelled by the popularisation of the ‘10,000 hours’ concept. Originally proposed by Ericsson in 1993, then given a new lease of life by Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers,’ this suggested that to achieve mastery as a musician you needed to spend 10,000 hours practising. Ericsson never intended the idea to apply to sport, but the 10,000 hours mantra seems to have resonated with swathes of parents and coaches keen to maximise their child’s / athlete’s chance of achieving sporting greatness and all that comes with it.

The problem is that early specialisation doesn’t appear to increase the chance of sporting success. Even in sports like gymnastics and diving where athletes may achieve elite status before they are physically mature, there is very little evidence to support focussing solely on one sport at an early age. Furthermore, not only is early specialisation unlikely to lead to greater sporting success, but it may actually reduce the chances of success occurring. Studies that examined talented Danish and German athletes have demonstrated that those who became truly ‘elite’ athletes were more likely to have played multiple sports in their youth than their sub-elite counterparts. It seems that there doesn’t appear to be any benefit in specialising early.

However, that’s not the end of the issues with early specialisation. Not only does it appear that there are no benefits to this practice, but there are also significant risks. When compared to less specialised children, children who are highly specialised are at risk of injury, especially overuse injuries. This holds true even when these data are adjusted for training hours and age. In addition, there is some data suggesting that early specialisation is also associated with reduced fun, poorer athlete perception of ‘health’ and an increased risk of quitting sport.

What this all demonstrates is that early specialisation is unlikely to have any benefits, and carries with it some reasonable risks. Fortunately, we have some simple ways to identify those who might be at risk. Three key questions can quickly identify the child who might be doing ‘too much.’

  1. Is the child participating in organised sport more than 16 hours per week?
  2. Is the ratio of the child’s time spent doing organised sport versus time spent in free play greater than 2:1?
  3. Is the child’s hours of training greater than their chronological age?

Each of these scenarios is independently associated with injury, and these are questions that I’ll ask all young athletes who present to me when it appears that they may be ‘over specialised.’

So perhaps the magic number in sport is not 10,000 hours, but 16 hours? As we reflect back and begin to regret why we had those extra helpings of ham this festive season, it’s worth remembering that feasting on one sport is also not a wise idea.