One of the biggest issues that elite junior athletes experience is the pressure from parents and/or coaches around their involvement in multiple sports or to specialise in sports from a young age. As a coach myself I always come back to a very simple principle for junior athletes, and that is that all sport is developmental until an athlete reaches the age of 15-18.
So our decision of whether junior athletes should be involved in one or multiple sports is made by this simple principle. Not only is it important for junior athletes to get exposure to multiple sports, it’s critical to their long term success.
Some of the best senior track athletes that I have come across and trained have one thing in common. That is that they were involved in multiple sports when they were at a junior level.
Unfortunately many junior coaches encourage specialisation, the reason is obvious, their success is linked to the success of junior athletes in the sport that they coach. As a strength and conditioning, we tend to bring a unique perspective into this debate. Our success as Strength and Conditioning coaches comes from injury minimisation and how the athletes performs over the long term.
While it’s great to have a junior become national champion when they’re 13, what are they really gaining as a result of this?
The reason for not specialising an athlete is both physical and mental
On the physical side, athletes need to learn to move in different planes, to learn basic movement and get a broad experience of physiological training. In other words they need to train all energy systems, not simply short distance or long distance and they need movement variation.
On the mental side, athletes need to develop a growth mindset. It’s important for junior athletes to view their development as an ongoing process to become better and to put in the hard work to be better. When they start to think they have more ability or talent than other athletes or have an expectation that whenever they compete they will come out on top is the wrong mindset and usually results in the athlete leaving the sport.
We need to encourage juniors to experience new sports, encourage them to master new skills and stop placing emphasis on their talents but rather their ability to apply effort to the task. If the athlete is still not successful in the long term then so be it, they’ve now fostered a mindset to be the best they can be long term, not just on the sporting field.