Does the 10,000 Hour-Rule for Expert Performance Apply to Youth Athletes?
Updated: May 16, 2019
What is Sports Specialization?
Early sport specialization or focusing on a single sport, is a definite trend in our youth athletes. I see it with the sports performance/fitness part of our company, as a physical therapist dealing with youth sports injuries, and as a parent with my children who are 12, 10, and 8. By high school, there are fewer multi sport athletes and unfortunately it seems to be happening earlier and earlier.
Background and Benefits of Early Specialization
There are many reasons contributing to this.
Free play has decreased while coach and parent driven activities have increased. Parents’ desire for their child to play at an elite level, combined with pursuit for college scholarships, with rapidly rising tuition costs, and socioeconomics come into play. Athletes who come from families with high median incomes, and who have (better) private insurance, have an increased risk of early sports specialization. Author Malcolm Gladwell cites the research of Swedish Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in his books, and helped make Dr. Ericsson’s work and the “10,000 Hour-Rule” more well known in pop culture. Ericsson and his colleagues proposed more than two decades ago that expert performance is not dependant on innate talent, as was previously believed and that what they called “deliberate practice” is a larger part of becoming an elite performer. The commonalities they found among expert performers was early access to instructors, high levels of deliberate practice, continual parental and environmental support, and the avoidance of disease and injury.
Most coaches and leagues would like athletes to be focused on their particular sport, which is only natural for the coaches, and keeps the leagues viable and profitable.
There does not seem to be enough quality information easily available for parents and coaches to advocate on behalf of the athlete, and to think big picture. Whose role is it to take a step back and think about the whole person, and the best interest for the athlete and the family? Thought should be given to diversification of the stresses applied and sports played, strength and conditioning, and downtime(rest).
Dr. James Andrews, well known Sports Medicine Orthopaedic surgeon to many pro athletes is putting a spotlight on the increase in overuse injuries related to sport specializations and overtraining, and the effects of little rest and often year round activity.
Is Sports Specialization Safe and Is Multi Sport Participation Better?
Early sport specialization may be dangerous for youth athletes. The available studies suggest youth specialization before the age of 12 years is associated with increased burnout and dropout rates and decreased athletic development over time.
Multi sport participation on the other hand is believed to result in better long term performance, and also to increase lifetime enjoyment of recreational activity and recreational sports participation.
It is recommended that the integration of strength and neuromuscular fitness be included together with the development of the entire athlete in terms of competence, confidence, connection, and character.
Early specialization has actually been found NOT to be necessary for elite performance.
What do we (actually) know?
Consensus Statement findings
From a 2015 Consensus statement from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM):
Early sports specialization has been identified as damaging for the future physical and mental health of the athlete. Future recommendations should include the following points:
-A public health message that multi sport participation will not diminish the athletic capabilities of athletes; we need better and more effective messaging with improved data.
-A focused effort toward the importance of physical education as an opportunity for noncompetitive play and put it back into school curriculums.
-Increased emphasis on the economic impact of a lack of physical fitness to health care costs as presented in obesity and various medical comorbidities.
-Recognition that each sport has its own distinct loading pattern and a distinct overuse injury to go with it.
-Identification of the optimal level of exposure to maximize training effect with minimal risk of injury needs to be identified.
-Early sports specialization has not been shown to be beneficial for high-caliber athletic performance at the national team/Olympic/professional levels, and in fact may be detrimental.
Achieving 10,000 hours over years and up to a decade is spoken about frequently in the literature, and in society. In youth sports performance, the information is still evolving and we are continuing to learn and improve. At the current time, it does not appear to make sense to specialize in a single sport prior to puberty, and elite performance is not dependent on it. The exception may be sports which compete at high levels at an earlier age such as gymnastics, dance, diving, and figure skating.