Welcome back to our series on pathways to elite performance. The last post in this series addressed elite performance via early specialisation, and the bottom line of the article suggested that early specialisation is recommended primarily for sports in which peak performance is reached prior to, or around puberty. So what about sports in which peak performance is typically reached during the late teenage or adult years? What is the recommended pathway to elite performance for these sports?
The next two posts in this series will discuss elite performance via diversification, and elite performance via talent transfer, as these pathways have both been shown to be effective for the attainment of sport expertise in sports with a later age of peak performance. First let’s take a look at elite performance via diversification.
What is diversification?
Diversification is also sometimes referred to as sampling or delayed specialisation, however all three terms refer to the same concept – participation in a variety of different sports before deciding to concentrate all efforts on the pursuit of elite performance in one single sport. The progression from involvement in multiple sports to a single sport is often gradual as the athlete tries their hand at a number of different sports before narrowing down their choices to 2 or 3, and then ultimately the one they most enjoy and/or show the most promise in achieving success. The age at eventual specialisation varies, but research has indicated 15-16 years as an average age for specialisation following a period of diversification (1,2).
(NOTE: The Pathways to the Podium Research Project will be investigating a variety of different factors relating to diversification as a pathway to elite performance, however preliminary analyses suggest that the average age at specialisation may be later than 15-16 years. Subscribe to The Expert Advantage via the links in the menu bar on the right hand side of this page to receive notification of future posts that will include discussion of results arising from The Pathways to the Podium Research Project.)
Diversification ≠ disadvantage
Numerous studies have highlighted that delaying specialisation until at least mid to late adolescence is not a disadvantage when it comes to elite sports performance. In fact, many investigations delving into the backgrounds of national and international level athletes have identified that these highly skilled athletes participate in 3-6 different sports before specialising in their main sport (1, 3-5).
Furthermore, when the sporting backgrounds of more highly skilled athletes are compared to lesser skilled athletes, the highly skilled athletes typically report participating in a greater number and/or a larger volume (in terms of total hours of participation) of other organised sports than the lesser skilled athletes (6,7). In addition, looking specifically at hours of participation in their eventual sport of specialisation, it has also been shown that differences in the number of hours invested into practice and competition activities actually do not differ between more highly skilled athletes and their lesser skilled counterparts until after approximately 10 years of involvement (3,8).
Interestingly, participation in a variety of different sports prior to specialisation has also been associated with fewer hours of involvement in the athlete’s main sport before being selected for the national team (3), a longer period of tenure on the national team (9), and a longer career overall (9).
What are the benefits of diversification?
So why do all these positive associations between sport expertise and diversification arise?
In one respect, diversification develops a wide repertoire of skills that can be transferred from one activity to another. Research suggests that several different elements can transfer between sports (see 10 and 11 for good reviews on the issue of skill transfer):
• Movement elements (e.g. the skills of a spike in volleyball and a smash in badminton are technically similar)
• Conceptual elements (e.g. box lacrosse and ice hockey are played on a similar sized field of play, with a similar number of athletes on the field of play at any one time, and the goal of both sports is to pass the ball/puck down the field of play and into a goal at either end)
• Perceptual elements (e.g. field hockey and soccer both require athletes to anticipate the actions of their opponents and make decisions in order to intercept the ball, make a break, execute a pass, or score a goal)
• Physiological elements (the aerobic requirements of distance running and cycling are similar)
Given the transferability of all of these elements, participation in a variety of sports may accelerate skill development rather than hinder it.
Additionally, diversification avoids the negative consequences of early specialisation discussed in our last post, which lead to burnout and dropout. The benefits of this are two-fold in that it can both increase enjoyment and motivation for sport and physical activity, as well as prolong participation.
What are the negative consequences of diversification?
As with all good things in life, the picture isn’t completely rosy. Diversification does involve a small number of (relatively minor) negative consequences. Let’s face it, participation in a number of sports can be a logistical nightmare – particularly for parents, and even more-so for families with multiple children, each with different interests and extra-curricular activities. If athletes are participating in more than one sport at the same time then schedule clashes are inevitable, and transport to, from, and between commitments may be an issue. Not to mention that registration, coaching, and competition fees, plus equipment costs associated with participating in multiple sports may put a strain on the family budget.
Possible solutions to these barriers to diversification include seasonal participation where the athlete plays one sport during the summer months and another sport during the winter months, and/or involvement in deliberate play. Deliberate play refers to those informal sporting games that we play spontaneously with our friends and family in the backyard, on the street, or at the park, where the focus is on fun rather than performance improvement (12). Examples include pick-up basketball, backyard cricket and street hockey. These activities do not require expensive equipment, proper facilities, or much organisation, but they have been shown to be highly influential on sport expertise development. We will discuss deliberate play and sport expertise in a future post, but for now I just wanted to whet your appetite and highlight that if diversification is not an option for you or your athlete, there are other alternatives.
What we don’t know
Despite the strong association between diversification and sport expertise, there are in fact a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to more specific recommendations regarding diversification “best practice”. Research has not yet identified any guidelines relating to the most effective number of sports to participate in, the time commitment required for each sport in order for involvement to be beneficial, the degree of similarity between sports required in order for involvement to be beneficial, the relative timing of participation in different sports, the list could go on. So for now, we know that diversification is an effective pathway toward elite performance, but more research is required to flesh out the specific characteristics of diversification for optimal development.
The bottom line – diversification as a pathway to elite performance?
For the large majority of athletes in the large majority of sports, diversification is the recommended pathway to elite performance. The positive associations between participation in multiple sports and career achievement and longevity, coupled with the avoidance of the negative consequences of early specialisation, make diversification a healthy and effective option for most aspiring athletes.
The third instalment in this series on pathways to elite performance will be posted in a few weeks, but in the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences relating to diversification and other pathways to elite performance by submitting a comment below. Discussion is welcome and encouraged!
1. Côté, J. (1999). The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport. The Sport Psychologist, 13(4), 395-417.
2. Soberlak, P., & Côté, J. (2003). The developmental activities of elite ice hockey players. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 41-49.
3. Baker, J., Côté, J., & Abernethy, B. (2003). Sport-specific practice and the development of expert decision-making in team ball sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 12-25.
4. Gulbin, J. P., Oldenziel, K. E., Weissensteiner, J. R., & Gagne, F. (2010). A look through the rear view mirror: Developmental experiences and insights of high performance athletes. Talent Development & Excellence, 2(2), 149-164.
5. Hill, G. M. (1993). Youth sport participation of professional baseball players. Sociology of Sport Journal, 10(1), 107-114.
6. Berry, J., Abernethy, B., & Côté, J. (2008). The contribution of structured activity and deliberate play to the development of expert perceptual and decision-making skill. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 30(6), 685-708.
7. Carlson, R. (1988). The socialization of elite tennis players in sweden: An analysis of the players’ backgrounds and development. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5(3), 241-256.
8. Helsen, W. F., Starkes, J. L., & Hodges, N. J. (1998). Team sports and the theory of deliberate practice. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 20, 12-34.
9. Barynina, I. I. & Vaitsekhovskii, S. M. (1992). The aftermath of early sports specialization for
highly qualified swimmers. Fitness and Sports Review International, 27(4), 132–133.
10. Baker, J. (2003). Early specialization in youth sport: A requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, 14(1), 85-94.
11. Baker, J., Cobley, S., & Fraser-Thomas, J. (2009). What do we know about early sport specialisation? not much! High Ability Studies, 20(1), 77-90.
12. Côté, J., & Hay, J. (2002). Children’s involvement in sport: A developmental perspective. In J. M. Silva III, & D. E. Stevens (Eds.), Psychological foundations of sport (pp. 484-502). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.