What drives early specialisation?

For this blog I/you have to thank Ian McKeown (@IanMackers – has a good blog here that is definitely worth following) for pointing me in the direction of a blog on early specialisation on twitter . It got me thinking. What is driving this behaviour? The blog mentions the commercialisation of sport and the media glamourising rich athletes creating extrinsic motivation for the young athlete, parents wanting to provide opportunities to excel and a limited number of coaching jobs causing coaches to push athletes into earlier specialisation as reasons. I’d like to delve a little deeper if I may.

I’m not so sure on the first point. Are young athletes driven by the wages and commercial opportunities that are associated with success at the highest levels of sport and the entrapments that so often seem to accompany it? They don’t tend to get mentioned in separate articles within the media. If young athletes read the tabloid press, I’m not sure the hounding that Tiger Woods, Ryan Giggs and Lance Armstrong have received recently would seem too appealing.

I’d say that young athletes are the most likely of anyone to dissociate the celebrity and monetary rewards from the adulation received from having 80,000 screaming their name after making a match winning play. If anyone is to be drawn in by extrinsic rewards, I’d have said parents would be the most likely candidates (see this documentary for details). I’m sure the majority of parents are driven by a will to give their children the best opportunity for success and that was why the dad I saw at 630am the other day was with his two under 10 year old children dribbling a football around cones in the park.

I think that commercialisation of  sport has had an effect but in a different way. Many professional clubs have academy sides that start at a very young age. These sides are seen as a gateway to success and so children (and parents) are trying to get into them. For clubs that rely on developing talent as a source of income by acting as a feeder club, these sides represent an important part of their business model and they perhaps see that the more kids they can hoover up into these sides, they have perhaps more chance of discovering talent and seeing an investment return. Essentially professional clubs are panning for gold. Instead, professional clubs should be playing the role of alchemists.

The approach of sports teams relating to community should be a joined up one across a number of sports. The development of athletic ability should be the primary aim and increasing long term participation in sport. The athlete can then decide what sports they enjoy competing in and have a pathway into whichever sport they choose because they are all involved in the development process. The talented, driven and more committed athletes will still succeed but social interaction between groups of young athletes can be enhanced. This can allow sporting success to be defined and measured differently.

At the top end, success will always be measured in time, distance and points. It has to be. But the success of community sporting projects should be measured in ongoing participation, sports club members, long term health and anti social behaviour and crime. Sport is about so much more than just winning medals and making money. We can’t lose sight of that.


Neil Welch


  1. An interesting thought provoking read Neil thank you. I, like many, probably see early specialisation as essential for being ‘top of your game’ at an age that still allows for a long career in that sport. Unfortunately this specific skill development & the lack of development of athletic ability that you mention, that will often see that athlete with me in the clinic rehabilating injury.

  2. Sorry pressed submit by mistake! Rehabilitating injury….and it is worrying to see that an athlete who has made it to a reasonable standard in their game cannot lunge or squat properly. Movement capability 1st…points, distance & time will come naturally.

  3. Thanks for the comment Elle. It sometimes leaves me scratching my head and wondering how an athlete has got to the level they have, often it’s down to the levels of skill acquisition from that early specialisation, but it always leaves me thinking about what level could be achieved if a more balanced approach was taken in those early stages.

  4. Hello Neil,
    My name is Melissa Hopwood. I am the author of the Expert Advantage blog that you refer to in this article. I am glad that you are continuing the discussion on what is driving early specialisation, and I agree with your additional perspectives.
    I still believe that the media does influence young athletes in their decisions to pursue sporting goals, and I have heard it first hand from athletes during my own research investigating the development of sport expertise. Young athletes are frequently inspired by their heroes from a young age after watching professional and Olympic events on television and watching / reading athlete biographies. I do also however, agree with you that parents are quite possibly influenced by the commercialisation of sport to a sometimes greater degree. I also completely agree with your discussion on the role of professional youth academies and early identification programs. While these programs have their advantages, administrators and coaches must pay particular attention to their programs to ensure optimal athlete development.
    Thanks again for keeping the discussion going. I welcome any more comments and ideas!

  5. Hi Melissa
    Thanks for your comment. I think I got a little caught up in thinking purely of the print media, I would definitely agree that watching live/highlighted sport on TV would add to an athlete’s will to compete at the highest level. It would be interesting now to see the effect that social media might have on the reasons for wanting reach that level of performance. It could be that insights into lifestyle away from the sports field via Twitter could further highlight the monetary rewards for younger athletes.
    I’d like to do a little more reading around early specialisation, could you point me in the direction of any journals/texts you recommend?

  6. Hi Neil,

    I will recommend a couple of review articles on specialisation in sport to get you started:

    Baker, J., Cobley, S., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009). What do we know about early sport specialisation? not much! High Ability Studies, 20(1), 77-90.

    Côté, J., Lidor, R., & Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 7-17.

    Hecimovich, M. (2004). Sport specialization in youth: A literature review. Journal of the American Chiropractic Association, 41(4), 32-41.

    It is not soley on specialisation in sport, but a text that I recommend for all practitioners is “Developing Sport Expertise” edited by Damian Farrow, Joseph Baker, and Clare MacMahon (Routledge). It is a very informative, easy read covering (among other topics) sport expertise development and effective practice design. Highly recommended.

    If you are unable to access the above article, please contact me at podium@yorku.ca and I will be happy to send you copies.


  7. That’s great Melissa

    Thanks very much for those, I’ve managed to get hold of the articles and the book will be on it’s way to me soon.

    You might see another blog once I’ve digested them all!

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