As usual, there are large gaps in the literature on the topic of early sport specialisation, and many of the current recommendations are based on expert opinion rather than high-quality evidence. However, for those needing more information, a position statement from the Australian Sports Medicine Collaborative and a recent paper by Kliethermes and colleagues are useful, and I will attempt to summarise these below.1,2
Before we start, it is important to emphasise that for the vast majority of young individuals, regular exercise/physical activity is safe and should be encouraged. Benefits include improvement of many health outcomes (physical and psychological), and it may also improve academic performance.
The Ministry of Health recommends children and young people (aged five to 17) should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, including at least three sessions of vigorous activity or strengthening activity per week. Sitting time should be broken up, with no more than two hours of recreational screen time per day (a real challenge these days).
The following definitions are commonly accepted:
- Sport specialisation – intensive, year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports.
- Early specialisation – sport specialisation before the age of 12.
Questions to help assess the degree of sport specialisation are:
- Does the athlete play or train for more than eight months per year in a particular sport?
- Does the athlete choose a main sport?
- Has the athlete stopped playing other sports to focus on a given sport?