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

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?


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

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To Specialize or not to Specialize, that is the Question

Early sport specialization is a concept that presents coaches, athletes, parents, sport administrators, and health professionals with a myriad of problems.

Early sport specialization can be defined as:

  • “Children who limits participation to a single sport on a year-round basis with a deliberate focus on training and development in that sport” (Wiersma, 2000);
  • “All athletes limiting their athletic participation to one sport on which they practice, train, and compete throughout the entire year” (Hill, 1993);

Research indicates that:

  • 98% of young athletes will never reach the elite level status;
  • Due to physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological factors natural talent does not transition from youth to adult performance;
  • 70% of children are dropping out of organized sport by age 13;
  • There is a 32-46% increase rate of athletic injuries;

There is a wealth of evidence that supports the concept of early sport specialization. It is essential that coaches, athletes, parents, sport administrators, and health professionals, consider the adverse effects. The risks have been characterized as harmful to youth. Fostering positive youth sport experiences and focusing on the fundamentals will widely benefit our future generation!

  1. As BRSS Student about to graduate, how do you educate stakeholders in the sport industry about the downsides of early sport specialization?
  2. Have you experienced burnout?

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The Relationship between Youth Sport Specialization and Involvement in Sport and Physical Activity in Young Adulthood

 As a graduating undergraduate in RSS, an article I would recommend reading is:

Russell, W. D., & Limle, A. N. (2013). The relationship between youth sport specialization and involvement in sport and physical activity in young adulthood. Journal of Sport Behavior, 36(1), 82-98. 

I chose this article because I believe that it is an important study as to how early sport specialization affects involvement in recreation and sport in young adults. This study indicated that when a child specializes early, they grow up without complete motor skill development, as well as psychological development.

When a child specializes early, as they grow up, there could be less intrinsic motivation to participate. During our younger years, there are trophies for participation, most valuable player, and least penalized player. Once participants hit young adulthood, unless your involved in high performance athletics, those awards become few and far between. Therefore as the desire for extrinsic rewards grows and the time for receiving them passes, the likelihood of maintain participation in the sports diminishes.

Recreation and sport is meant as a positive influence; it often keeps children and adolescents out of situations that could be harmful to their development. It also instills a sense of commitment and hard work that a developing child requires to maintain a lasting involvement and enjoyment of sport, as well as the many skills and traits that can be developed and utilized throughout their lives