The Sport Information Resource Centre
The Sport Information Resource Centre

Parents who dream of their children becoming professional athletes, and coaches who believe that single-minded dedication is the only way to reach the top of their sport, have contributed to an increase in early sport specialization. However, there are many researchers, coaches, and athletes who have been pushing back on this trend, citing a range of negative repercussions relating to skill development and the risk of physical and psychological harm.

What is early specialization?

Experts in sport psychology, talent development, and sport medicine have recently reached consensus on a definition for early specialization (LaPrade et al., 2016). This definition includes three criteria:

  1. Involvement of prepubertal children
  2. Participation in one sport, to the exclusion of others
  3. Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport for more than 8 months per year
What are people saying about early specialization and burnout?

The same experts who defined early specialization also stated, “…there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity” (Laprade et al., 2016, p. 1).

The most widely accepted definition of athlete burnout describes it as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment in sport, and sport devaluation—not valuing or caring as much about sport as they used to (Raedeke, 1997).

There are several reasons why we might see a relationship between early specialization and burnout:

  • Heavy training volumes and inadequate recovery time can lead to overtraining and staleness, which may contribute to physical exhaustion and other aspects of burnout.
  • High levels of deliberate practice and little time for play can lead to decreased enjoyment, which is negatively associated with burnout.
  • Highly structured, intensive training may leave young athletes feeling that they have very little control or input into their participation in sport.

However, a careful review of the literature reveals that many of the warnings about the association between early specialization and burnout are based more on theory than on actual evidence. Most research on early specialization comes from a talent development or injury prevention perspective. Less is known about the relationship between early specialization and psychosocial or behavioural outcomes, like burnout and dropout from sport.

We set out to conduct a study that would add empirical evidence to the literature on early specialization and burnout (Larson, Young, McHugh, & Rodgers, 2019).

Research Design

The research project involved surveys with 137 youth swimmers (ages 12-13) from across Canada and measured their levels of enjoyment, commitment, burnout, and their intentions to continue swimming next season. A check-in at the start of the following season was used to confirm if the athletes were still swimming or if they had dropped out. Parents provided detailed information about each swimmer’s sport background, supporting an assessment of levels of early specialization.

Early specialization was measured in several different ways, using a variety of markers. For example, we looked at the age at which swimmers first reached certain milestones associated with intensive training, such as beginning dryland training or attending training camps. We also looked at the number of years from ages 6-12 that swimmers trained and competed in only swimming for more than 8 months per year.

Research Findings

To the surprise of the research team, results revealed that the relationships between these markers of early specialization and burnout were minimal or non-existent, and in some cases early specialization was associated with greater intentions to continue swimming competitively, and a decreased likelihood of dropout. These results ran contrary to much of the theorizing in the literature, as well as some past empirical studies.

Interpreting the Results

There are a few potential explanations for these unexpected findings:

  • The research sample was fairly young and featured a variety of competitive levels. A relationship between early specialization and burnout might be more prominent in an older, more elite sample.
  • Research on early specialization has been hampered by the lack of a standardized definition and measure. Although there is a widely accepted definition and measure of burnout within sport psychology (the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire; Raedeke & Smith, 2000), earlier research and studies within sports medicine might use different definitions which makes it difficult to compare and synthesize these results.
  • It may be that the context in which training takes place is more important than the degree of early specialization, when it comes to burnout. After all, not all athletes who specialize early end up burning out. Horn (2015) proposed that if young athletes’ psychological needs are met, they may be protected from the potentially negative impacts of early specialization. However, our current findings and a closer examination of past studies suggest that early specialization in and of itself may actually be neutral; the context in which it takes place is what determines whether there are positive or negative outcomes.
Key Takeaways

Training contexts are largely shaped by coaches and parents. Regardless of whether or not your athlete is an early specializer, you should keep these things in mind:

  • Training volume. It is recommended that athletes avoid training more hours per week than their age in years, in order to prevent overuse injuries. This is especially important when all of their training takes place in a single sport (Jayanthi, LaBella, Fischer, Pasulka, & Dugas, 2015).
  • Opportunities for other activities. While multi-sport participation may not be necessary to prevent burnout, if an athlete wants to explore other sport or non-sport activities, they should be given the opportunity to do so. If they are forced to choose between two or more attractive activities, they may grow resentful and be more prone to burnout and/or dropout (Larson, McHugh, Young, & Rodgers, 2019).
  • Autonomy. Athletes should feel that it is their choice to take part in the sport. If their sport participation is coerced or pressured, burnout and/or dropout is more likely (Li, Wang, & Kee, 2013).
  • Competence. Athletes need to feel like they are good at something. Emphasize the ways they are improving and gaining new skills, rather than comparing their performance to others (Li et al., 2013).
  • Relatedness. Strong positive relationships with coaches and teammates can make heavy training loads more bearable and even enjoyable. It’s important to foster a sense of belonging. Bullying or exclusion must be dealt with immediately (Larson, McHugh, et al., 2019).
  • Multiple motives for participation. There will always come a time when an athlete is no longer improving on their past performances. The key to maintaining lifelong sport participation is to emphasize non-performance related reasons for participating in sport, like physical fitness, mental wellness, enjoyment, and positive social aspects (Larson, McHugh, et al., 2019).

About the Author(s)

Dr. Heather Larson is a post-doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on motivation in sport and exercise contexts, with a special interest in preventing burnout and promoting long-term participation in swimming. She has been a masters swimmer and youth swim coach for most of her adult life.

References

Horn, T. S. (2015). Social psychological and developmental perspectives on early sport specialization. Kinesiology Review4, 248-266.

Jayanthi, N. A., LaBella, C. R., Fischer, D., Pasulka, J., & Dugas, L. R. (2015). Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case-control study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine43, 794-801.

LaPrade, R. F., Agel, J., Baker, J., Brenner, J. S., Cordasco, F. A., Côté, J., … & Hewett, T. E. (2016). AOSSM early sport specialization consensus statement. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine4(4). https://doi.org/10.1177/2325967116644241

Larson, H. K., McHugh, T. L. F., Young, B. W., & Rodgers, W. M. (2019). Pathways from youth to masters swimming: Exploring long-term influences of youth swimming experiencesPsychology of Sport and Exercise41, 12-20.

Larson, H. K., Young, B. W., McHugh, T. L. F., & Rodgers, W. M. (2019). Markers of early specialization and their relationships with burnout and dropout in swimmingJournal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 41, 46-54.

Li, C., Wang, C. J., & Kee, Y. H. (2013). Burnout and its relations with basic psychological needs and motivation among athletes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise14, 692-700.

Raedeke, T. D. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology19, 396-417.

Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2001). Development and preliminary validation of an athlete burnout measure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology23, 281-306.