Specify or diversify?

sports broochMs Sally Northcroft, Director of Sport

As the School this week marks the 100-year anniversary of the Sports Brooch, Director of Sports, Ms Sally Northcroft, discusses the importance of diversification in physical pursuits during formative years and how Girls Grammar’s approach to a broad, liberal education includes eighteen different sports.

Time Magazine’s August 2017 cover and lead article reads: ‘How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry’. The article author, Sean Gregory, highlights the emergence of the youth-sports reality for many sporting families in America. He reflects that across the country, community-based sports are being replaced by private club teams — development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises. The lure of these groups is that they travel to national tournaments in order for children as young as eight years of age to be seen by talent scouts. Parents are spending upwards of $250 000, taking regular ten-hour road trips and even sending their thirteen-year-old children to another city thousands of kilometres away to provide them with more opportunities to compete in their chosen sport. This is all done in the hope that their child will be one of the one percent of 650 000 high-school athletes who are awarded a sporting scholarship to attend a university. Gregory asserts that, according to WinterGreen Research, this youth-sports economy is now a $15.3 billion market and has grown by fifty-five per cent since 2010.

While we are not yet seeing this type of industry to the same extent in Australia, the article is a timely reminder of how youth-sport participation is turning towards early specialisation based on some old (and often misquoted) research that relates to long-term and sport-specific practice from a study of chess players’ performance.

In Ericsson’s article, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (1993), he proposed that ‘… the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain’. The requirements, therefore, to become and be considered an expert performer requires a deliberate and focused approach to one specific domain (read: sport). This research was largely focused on chess players and master musicians.

While there is no denying that early specialisation, as articulated by Ericsson, can improve performance, there has since been a great deal of research into the consequences of early specialisation. Wiersma (2000) found that long-term participation in sport can be reduced due to the lack of overall motor development while a child is specialising in a selected group of motor skills. Of critical importance is the research Wieserma (2000) conducted into the social and psychological development of a child. The breadth of social skills that can be developed while playing a variety of sports, such as cooperation and socially acceptable behaviour, can be limited if an athlete is spending too much time training for one sport. As early as 1992, Dalton warned that over training children while they are going through a growth spurt can have significant implications on injuries to the knees, shoulders and other joints where connective tissue and bone growth do not occur simultaneously. Brenner’s (2016) clinical report points out that if any sport specialisation is to occur, it should be after puberty (late adolescence, approximately fifteen or sixteen years of age); which ‘will minimise risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success’. The Canadian Sport for Life guide for parents (Way, 2007) reaffirms that for girls aged eleven to fifteen in the ‘Training to Train’ stage of their Long Term Athlete Development) Framework, premature specialisation could result in young athletes quitting their sport due to burnout or excessive pressure from coaches and/or parents.

The risk of drop out in youth sport is exacerbated by the introduction of early specialisation. The oft-quoted reason for why athletes drop out is because of a lack of fun or enjoyment. The nature of Ericsson’s deliberate practice is that this is not inherently enjoyable. Therefore, long-term commitment to a sport is at risk of occurring if the participation in that sport is no longer fun or enjoyable.

Brenner (2016) analysed the impact of sport specialisation leading to a successful performance career.  A study in the USA showed that university-age National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports in high school and that their first organised sport was different from their current area of specialisation. Of the 322 athletes invited to attend the 2015 National Football League Scouting Combine, eighty-seven per cent played multiple sports in secondary school; only thirteen per cent played only football (Malina, 2010). A review of studies by Jayanthi et al (2013) and Côté et al (2009) supported late specialisation and early diversification. In addition, they concluded that athletes who engaged in sport-specific training at a young age had shorter athletic careers.

Early diversification is explained in recent research by Baker (2009) and Brenner (2016). If athletes are encouraged to explore a variety of sports while growing physically, they will develop both cognitively and socially. If allowed to do so in a positive learning environment, these athletes will develop the intrinsic motivation required for long-term participation as both elite and recreational participants of their selected sport(s). The elements of early diversification include involvement in multiple sports as well as participation in deliberate play (Côté, 2007, 2009, 2014), resulting in benefits such as ‘experiencing different physical, cognitive, affective and psycho-social environments’ (Côté, 2009). The foundational skills acquired allow athletes to successfully specialise later (Coakley, 2015). Diversification also allows children to experience different social interactions with peers and adults and reinforces emotional and self-regulating skills needed for the future (Côté, 2014).

With these recommendations articulated in theory, they are further endorsed by the International Olympic Committee’s International consensus statement on youth athletic development. Bergeron et al (2016) recognise the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) framework for youth sport participation —Foundation, Talent, Elite and Mastery (FTEM) athlete development framework — as an exemplar for athlete development. The framework is informed by contemporary research and practice, and has been introduced to ensure sufficient guidance for Australians of all ages as they engage in sport for the first time. Bergeron et al (2016) writes that gaps in the youth athletic development pathway prevail. At the initial sports participation stage, inappropriate guidance and developmental activities contribute to compromised fundamental skill acquisition, injury, burnout, dropout and unrealised talent potential of youth athletes.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, our staff, students and parents have found an increasing number of ‘off-season’ competitions such as winter water polo or summer netball competitions being offered through clubs and community organisations. The perception and fear of missing out or falling behind in skill acquisition, or worse, not being selected to a representative team (even if it is for the Under 9s team), drive athletes and parents to enter the world of early specialisation. The increasing number of regional and national competitions that are open to all ages and abilities — designed to increase participation and improve the quality of the experience for the athlete — are also leading many children and adolescents to believe that they must participate in this sport all year round if they are to be successful. Success is often perceived as winning the local or School championship or selection to a junior representative team. Very rarely is it seen as qualities that this School considers essential to a broad, liberal education: continual improvement; making friends; and learning skills that will keep that child engaged in sport beyond the junior representative arena.

To combat these challenges, as a leader in evidence-based practice, Girls Grammar continues to offer eighteen sports, on a seasonal basis. Each season has a specific pre-season preparatory season (team trials and training), the official competition season and a complementing strength and conditioning program that physically prepares the girls to transition from one sport to another — with the aim to reduce injury, build strength and prepare cognitively for the upcoming season.

The results in performance and participation are reflected in the higher than national average participation of adolescent girls in sport at Girls Grammar — eighty-five per cent compared to thirty-one percent of eleven to fourteen-year-old girls nationally — and the long-term involvement in sport is reported anecdotally. A recent request for reflections on previous recipients of the School’s most prestigious sporting award, the Sports Brooch, a number of recipients reported that the friends and fun they had while at school were reasons why they continued to play sport well beyond their time at Girls Grammar. Of note, our most recent Olympian, Fiona Albert (2007), began her rowing career at Girls Grammar and enjoyed many other sports like Basketball and Cross Country while remaining committed to her sport of Rowing for ten years before becoming an Olympian. To build upon her physical pursuits, Fiona has also completed a law degree. While at school, Fiona made the most of early diversification and did not specialise early. In 2016, Fiona was training to run a marathon before being contacted at the last minute to represent Australia in rowing at the Rio Olympics. Current Australian representatives in the School have followed the same path. Swimmer, Minna Atherton (12B), was a valuable member of the Year 8 volleyball team and Eliza King (11E) played netball for the School for three years before focusing on the pool. Australian U23 rower, Portia Bennett (12W), is an avid football player and Australian Schoolgirls Water Polo representative; Abby Andrews (12W) has participated as an outstanding swimmer for the school before focusing on water polo.

Finally, to encapsulate the value that Girls Grammar places on the importance of early diversification and an avoidance of early specialisation, the Sports Brooch has a specific requirement. In order to qualify to apply, girls must: represent the School in at least three Open teams for team sports; compete in Swimming and Athletics in an A division event; or, be one of the top fifteen runners in their age group for Cross Country at the Queensland Girls’ Secondary Schools Sports Association Championships. Those who meet this criteria are then evaluated by their respective coordinators as to their standard of play, the sports involved, seniority and sportsmanship. These demonstrable elements make up the skills and attributes that have been valued since the inception of the award in 1917. As always, Girls Grammar is a leader in thought, excellence and practice with this award. The award is presented at the School’s End of Year Assembly and Speech Day; the recipient’s name being placed on the Sports Honour board.


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Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, et al International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development Br J Sports Med 2015;49:843-851.

Brenner, J. S., & APP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.. (2016). Sports Specialization and intensive training in young athletes. Pediatrics, 138(3).

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