When to Specialize?

I just read an article in which Kim McCullough ( a former MBSC intern by the way) talked about the difficulty of balancing the concept of early specialization with the concept of 10,000 hours needed for expert status. If we really need to accumulate 10,000 hours to become an expert in any discipline then it would appear we need to start very young? However on the flip side, all the expert experience seems to point away from early specialization in one sport? Who’s right?

Kim quoted a Scandinavian study that showed that elite performers cranked up the hours between ages 15 and 18? How and why is this significant? I think potentially in three ways:

1- Non specialized hours count early. All movement counts toward the 10,000 hours from ages 5-15. If  mastery of a particular sport is the goal it is not about hours of that particular sport but hours of a broad range of sports that lay the foundation for elite performance later. Kids need to kick, hit, jump, and throw in as many venues as possible to develop the wide range of athletic skills that will eventually result in elite performance in one area.  
Specialization early is probably more detrimental not beneficial. In other words, soccer hours count towards hockey as a young child learns to connect the brain to the feet and develops sprint abilities and energy systems. In the same way, gymnastics, martial arts and baseball are all part of the early composition of the 10,000 hours. What does not count is TV and NHL Play Station. I even think watching high quality games counts at this point as kids develop passion and game concepts.

2- Games count but they count less than you think. You might want to view a game based on minutes of play or better yet minutes of ball or puck contact. A typical youth hockey game might count for 15 minutes ( actual play time) or one minute ( actual puck contact). Don’t get caught up in the “more games” thing.

3- Deep practice or deliberate practice becomes more likely and more tolerable after a certain age. After age 12 kids seem to be able to accept that fact that practice might not always be fun. In the same books that tout 10,000 hours we also find the concept of deep practice or deliberate practice. Both concepts focus on repetition of skills slightly out of reach and begin to focus on quality reps done with feedback.  I dont think that deep practice is normal for young kids although it is a basic tenent of elite weight class sports like gymnastics and figure skating. After 12 years of age things like strength training, conditioning, puck shooting and stickhandling begin to count for the young hockey player.

The key to developing an elite performer in any sport is to balance the concepts and to realize that a broad base is actually the foundation of a 10,000 hour pyramid that leads to elite performance.

11 Responses to “When to Specialize?”

  1. mboyle1959 Says:

    Wasn’t sure. The Crossfit point is interesting. I have always said I like some of Crossfit’s concepts, it the execution that I disagree with.

    For the best in Boston area sports and personal training go to http://www.bodybyboyle.com. For the best in performance enhancement information go to http://www.strengthcoach.com MBSC was recently named one of America’s Top Gyms By Men’s Health Magazine and was voted Boston’s best personal trainers for 2011.

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  2. brianseelos Says:

    Hi Michael. I wasn’t trying to be funny and I’m sorry if you took it that way. I took from the article that the key to early development of athletic performance is to perform a broad range of sports and activities. This is what I did as a kid and many young athletes do.

    I was also referencing that Crossfit is very much in that same mindset. Creating superior performance by not specializing.

    On another note I am about a quarter of the way through “Advances in Functional Training” and I am enjoying it thoroughly.

  3. mboyle1959 Says:

    Brian- not sure if you were trying to be funny. Was the post not clear? Can I clarify something better?


  4. brianseelos Says:

    They key to specialization is not to specialize? Sounds like Crossfit to me. I remember growing up playing hockey, baseball, and wrestling, all completely different sports. They all add value to the other in some ways, whether it be coordination, footwork, or body control.

  5. […] When to Specialize- Mike Boyle […]

  6. Willows Strength & Conditioning Says:

    Reblogged this on Willows Strength & Conditioning and commented:
    Further information on Specialisation in Sports and 10,000 hours theory.

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