To specialize or to generalize… That is the question.

Is it best to build a wide array of movement patterns through multiple sporting experiences?

Or should we hone the skills and the techniques of one primary sport 12 months a year?

At the recent Alberta Sport Development Center’s Athletes and Injuries seminar a coach asked our expert panel about this very concept. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to fully explore the topic at that time. Hope he is reading. After 15 years of training athletes and seeing my share of injuries and burn out and success I can honestly say… it depends.

I’ve trained a very talented hockey player whose efforts to hit a squash ball or make his way through an agility ladder would have been comical if he did not give up so easily because he wasn’t any good at it.

I met an over eager dad whose 14 year old child prodigy had just quit the sport he had spent the last 10 years specializing in.

I’ve seen coaches pressuring/ influencing athletes to focus on their sport over others as the talent pool is only so big in a community our size.

On the flip side I have also seen my share of over trained athletes who participate in every sport going and as a result never have any down time/ recovery. Court sport athletes have been an eye opener. Straight from the Volleyball court onto Basketball straight from that into spring league V-ball and more B-ball then of course there are the summer camps. Some may even play soccer on top of all that.

To help us regular Joes make informed decisions around sport there is a great resource; Canadian Sport for Life is an initiative of the Canadian Sport Centers and Sport Canada, planning for the sport excellence and well being of Canadians. CS4L supports Long Term Athlete Development because it helps all kids to be ‘Physically Literate’ and build a fundamental movement vocabulary for a lifetime of sport and physical activity.

CS4L identifies certain sports where early specialization is a reality such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating. Many of the complex skills involved need to be learned prior to physical maturation since they are very difficult to master after puberty.

Late specialization sports such as soccer, hockey, B-ball, and baseball can still be mastered for elite levels of competition if specialization does not begin until the teens. Important note: it is essential that these athletes have acquired physical literacy prior to adolescence. “Children need to develop as athletes before they become specialized as players!!”

Specialize or generalize? Not a black and white answer. What sport? Do they need to focus early? What is their developmental age? Do they love what they are doing? Are they developing imbalances/ injuries playing too much of one? Are they overtraining doing too many in total? Is it parent driven? Coach driven? Athlete driven?

All coaches, parents and athletes are encouraged to visit www.ltad.ca for a more in-depth look at these and many other issues facing young athletes. It is an excellent resource backed by science and supported by the elite sport minds in our country.

Ed Stiles BPE, Certified Exercise Physiologist is a member of the Alberta Sport Development Center’s Performance Enhancement Team and operates Peak Performance Fitness Services. He can be reached via email at asdc@mhc.ab.ca or at peakperform@hotmail.com