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Why specialising later can reduce the risk of injury and burnout

Good practice at youth development level can enable both life-long participation in sport and future high-performance outcomes.

The High Performance Athlete Development team at High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) works with targeted National Sport Organisation’s to create effective development environments for athletes tracking towards international success in future Olympic or Paralympic cycles, or other pinnacle events. 

This team is currently working with 400 athletes across 12 sports, primarily focused on Olympic/Paralympic Games in Paris 2024, Beijing 2026 and LA 2028, as well as other pinnacle events such as the recent Netball World Cup.

As part of this work, for the past seven years, we have been surveying pre-HP athletes (those on the cusp of becoming a high-performance athlete). So far, this study has involved 645 athletes across six intakes and 22 sports. 

The survey measures athlete demographics, family background, characteristics, experiences and a mix of sport science and medicine measures. 

On average, pre-HP athletes report their point of specialisation at 15 years and 5 months old. They’re participating in 5.5 sports in primary school and 3.1 sports at secondary school. Even after secondary school they average 1.9 sports. 

The HPSNZ research also reinforces the importance of parents and coaches, and the messages in the Keep up with the play public awareness campaign launched in February 2020. Pre-HP athletes report that the top three sources of their learning to perform better are through their coaches, technical support staff and parents. While encouragement and influence from parents is third on the list of motivation factors, behind the love of their sport and enjoying being active. This highlights the importance and responsibility of parents to be well informed about best practice development to enable the best guidance possible for their children and athletes.

Read: Research – Young people’s experiences of parental involvement in youth sport

In my opinion, while many people believe that they can predict future potential at the age of 11, 12 or 13, there are so many variables at play that deciphering them to understand pure potential rather than current performance at that age is extremely difficult.

What does all that mean? HPSNZ encourages diversity in development, whether that’s playing multiple sports, multiple disciplines or activities within a single sport. When managed well this can also reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries. 

There are a few sports that do require specialisation earlier, like some snow sports disciplines or swimming, but ensuring there is diversity within those programmes can meet development needs and reduce the possibility of overuse injuries or burnout.

Quality coaching and administration at youth level should enable athletes to stay in sport and realise their potential, whether that’s about playing for enjoyment or aspiring to be a future high-performance athlete.

Read More:

The Risks of Early Specialisation
The Perils of Specialisation

Image Credits: Unsplash