Recreation and Sport Studies

Studying, Experiencing and Facilitating Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport through Wellness and Physical Activity

How Specialization is Hurting the Future of Sport

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We have seen the recent trend in many nations to increase funding in elite level sports in which they have a competitive advantage while cutting back in sports in which don’t see much success.  The idea of “inspiring a nation through world-class success” (British Ministry of Sport) is very far-fetched and seems like a way governments can justify the ways they invest in sport.

This potential for glory seems to be the main catalyst for parents to invest in their children’s athletic careers as well and usually results in focusing on one sport at an early age and putting all available resources into that sport.  The way countries and individuals are investing limited resources into sport, there has to be a growing concern that many sports in certain regions will essentially “die” at the expense of achieving success in other sports.

For example, if you aspiring to be an elite level pentathlete in Canada, there is no question that you have a much tougher hill to climb than someone who has the desire to become an elite-level hockey player.  The impact that the allotment of funding has on society may be very detrimental.  As Havaris and Danychuk (2007) point out, it seems as though there needs to be more clarity of the priorities and goals of national sporting bodies, such as Sport Canada.  Are their goals to win more Olympic medals? Or are they to increase development and participation across the country and across all sports?

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The gap between sports seems to be widening, which in my opinion is decreasing the overall participation of youth across all sports.   When I was growing up, my friends and I all played numerous sports, and it wasn’t until I graduated high school that I was forced to ‘specialize’—and that wasn’t that long ago.   Now, kids are having to choose one sport at an increasingly younger age if they want to be able to compete amongst their peers.  When faced with this decision, someone is much more likely to choose a sport in which there are resources and programs nearby to support them.  This increase in specialization is seen across all regions and you can look at the distribution of medals across different sports in the Olympic Games to see this trend.  As Houlihan & Zheng (2013) indicate, countries like Canada are not going to invest money into a sport, such as table tennis, only to be embarrassed at the Olympics by a perennial powerhouse like China.  If we are dedicating all of our resources into a very limited number of sports, what happens to the individuals who are interested in the sports that do not receive any funding or resources?  Either they are forced to choose another sport or they don’t participate at all.

sport specialization

Effects of sport specialization

This focus and strive for elite level success is having a trickle-down effect and pushing kids and parents to choose one sport at a young and younger age and to train year around for that one sport.  There is a growing belief that the more money a family invests in their child, the more successful they will become.  We are seeing an increasing investment in sport specific training as parents and athletes are trying to find an edge in an ultra-competitive youth sporting scene.  The cost of youth sport is spiraling out of control and unless you come from a family that has the ability to invest thousands of dollars into your training, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete.  It is too expensive to play multiple sports now, which is another reason participation rates are falling.  This early specialization can lead to burnout, social isolation, and injury among other things (Malina, 2010) and in the end there is no evidence that early specialization increases the chances for youth to make it to an elite level (Baker, Cobey & Fraser-Thomas, 2009).

This trend toward sport specialization at a national level and at an individual level may have a great impact on the industry of sport.  The increase in funding in certain sports and decrease in others will in the long term impact the growth of these sports.  The sports receiving the majority of the resources will continue to be successful at the elite level and attract coaches and players to grow those sports.  The sports that do not receive the resources will continue to decline as less and less youth are participating and coaches become harder and harder to find.  If the trend to invest in the most successful sports continues, over time we will see many sports continue to decline and eventually die out in particular regions because of the lack of resources and facilities.  This will only foster the belief that early sport specialisation is necessary and may discourage a large number of youth from participating in sport altogether.  As Green and Houlihan (2009) indicate, national sport policies are structured so that “excellence” is the only outcome.  National sport funding policies across the world must be reassessed if we want all sports to be developed rather than only a select few.

Specializing in sport is occurring at an increasingly younger age

Specializing in sport is occurring at an increasingly younger age

2 thoughts on “How Specialization is Hurting the Future of Sport

  1. I agree with your points made on the developments within sports and the specialization effect happening around the globe. It used to be that children played numerous sports. Selections would be made based on their enjoyment, now it is all about success or funding or potential earnings. Growing up sports were dependent upon the seasons. Yes, you may of did some hockey in the spring or went to hockey school for a week, but typically hockey was a winter sport and soccer was a summer sport. Now children are forced to choose depending upon their involvement or focus.

    Many children want the dream of playing in the NHL. To do this it is suggested, but more so required to play on almost every team possible throughout their career. Winter team at the highest level, spring team, provincial team, summer camps and off-season training group, and all the off-ice training. Where is their down-time? How is it possible for parents to afford multisport careers when just one sport alone can break the bank? Personally I enjoyed being busy and running to different sports throughout my childhood but I was always changing. I would do hockey practice before school and soccer right after. Going from sport to sport it allowed me to clear my head. I was able recover mentally and focus on different aspects of a game or practice. Unfortunately, nowadays if I was growing up my parents would be unable to handle the costs of a multisport athlete.

    Today I see young children with potential in one sport completely ignoring it because of their interest in another. In their minds one has to be number one and the others are not as important. Is it because they believe another sport will get them further? I believe we have society to blame for this. Every country focuses on certain sports. Canada we “have” to be good at hockey, if we aren’t then what are we good at…? Swiss must be good at downhill skiing because of the Alps, right? Countries focuses are so narrow-minded that they do not see how it is effecting our children. Why would a child be interested in cricket in Canada? There is basically no place for them to join a team or learn more. They couldn’t be successful in this country not like the children in India. It is all about opportunities. Instead children are filtered into the sports based on their region. Sports are prioritized depending upon their succession in the past or per se the Olympics. Governments are not interested in developing new sports or potential winners instead, they want to continue winning with the sports were “good at”.

    If you were in between two sports, one is popular in your nation with an endless amount of funding, the opportunity to go pro and be a future job, or just pay for your future education. The other is very undiscovered, little to no funding, only potential future is dependent upon being the best or top ten in the world to make a profit, may receive a small amount of funding for your education, and is rarely marketed or televised. Which one would you choose?

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  2. In todays society it is evident that there are advancements with sport and the capabilities of the athletes playing those sports. In the past, children had the opportunity to play all different kinds of sports because it allowed them to figure out on their own what they liked and didn’t like but also learn fundamentals and skills. Now the advancments has changed the world of sports for children all over the world. It went from a time of enjoyment to pressure and stress of picking one sport to play rather then all of them. This is the case because children now have to pick a speciality at a young age and complete at different levels. Having more intense competition levels leads to the child being stressed due to trying to be perfect. With all the work put into one certain sport it could eventually lead to the child burning out throughout their athletic career and quitting the sport.

    With a child investing so much time in sports where is their time for development? Where is their time to be a child and enjoy life without competition all the time. With parents investing so much time in their child’s athletic career it could either take time away from the family aspect of growing up or it could be a positive experience for everyone and lead to their child entering a whole new level of a sport and thriving.

    Having children invested in sports is very expensive and not all families can afford to have children competing at elite levels. That being said, a lot of families will do everything in their power to give them all the opportunities they need and deprive the less important needs. The families with more then one child, who each plays different sports can be even expensive and stressful on families with all the traveling and time consumption. The increase in funding in certain sports and decrease in others will in the long term impact the growth of these sports. This means that those who want to play one sport, may be forced to start playing in another because there is more popularity but also more funds that help pay for that sport. This is positive because it allows opportunities that may not have been present at one time could then be present at another.

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