Single sport specialization and the 10,000 hour rule

By | January 19, 2021

Several elements of talent development — sport specialization, the 10,000 hour rule, and deliberate practice — get talked about a lot. If you’re familiar with what these terms mean and how they relate to each other then you know that there is a problem with the numbers.

The 10,000 hour rule is a convenient metaphor that illustrates how developing talent takes a lot of time. And that’s all it is — a metaphor. Anyone who interprets it literally as a rule is missing the point. But some do believe that its literal implementation is necessary to reach an elite level of performance. Couple this with the currently accepted definition of deliberate practice and it’s easy to create an early sport specialization problem in youth sports.

Early specialization in a single sport has been linked to premature withdrawal from the sport, early burnout, poor development of physical literacy, and long-term overuse injuries, which is why most sport practitioners advise against it. However, the 10,000 hour rule and the elements involved in deliberate practice seem to create a trap; if an athlete does not specialize early then others who do will have an advantage, and without early specialization the young athlete cannot achieve the 10,000 hours.

Part of the solution is to redefine deliberate practice so that cross-domain activities are included. At the youth level this makes sense because specializing early in only one activity limits the development of physical literacy, and subsequently the depth of performance skills the athlete is able to call on later. Typically we refer to this depth of performance as athleticism. Early specialization can actually reduce the level of athleticism since the skills an athlete learns and practices are limited to only one sport.

Everyone has seen the occasional report of a football coach having his players take ballet lessons and it is reported as if there’s nothing more amusing than a 150 kg linebacker prancing around a dance floor. But there’s a good reason why the coach thinks this is valuable; dance in all its forms broadens one’s range of movement skills especially those related to dynamic balance. Developing this kind of movement skill at later ages though is difficult, similar to learning a new language later in life. Imagine the depth of skill those players would have if they participated in dance, gymnastics, or almost any number of other activities as youngsters.

Making comments about an athlete’s style and grace imply that it came from long hours of practice but more likely it’s the result of participating in a number of different kinds of activities. Becoming physically literate adds to the quality of later athletic performance, even though it requires youngsters to practice activities other than what they think is their ‘main’ sport. The hype surrounding 10,000 hours of practice does lead to the feeling that there is not enough time to develop fully but focusing exclusively on accumulating practice in a specific skill set ignores how children grow and mature, and how different kinds of stimuli at different times are needed to fully develop physical skills.

Talent development is a complicated process and hours of deliberate practice (nobody really knows how many is enough) is only a component. Not the whole story.

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