In the last 15 years, there has been a remarkable increase in the early sports specialisation of children and young people.1 Some factors explaining the parents’ and coaches’ desire to encourage the choice of a single sport have to do with (i) the hope of giving the young athlete an edge in competition, (ii) obtaining a grant or financial support, (iii) facilitating their way into professional elite sports and (iv) labelling the athlete as “elite” at an early age. In spite of these apparent advantages, research suggests that early sport specialisation does not lead to a competitive advantage over other athletes who take part in many sports simultaneously. 1,2 Early sport specialisation can even lead to an increased risk of abandonment or burnout.3 Burnout is usually defined as a cognitive-affective syndrome characterised by a state of emotional and physical fatigue, loss of sports performance and a reduced perception of the ability to achieve success in the planned task.4 Burnout is characterised by the lack of physical or mental energy to perform sports activity at the athlete’s regular level, the loss of performance translated into a decrease in the athletes’ passion and their desire to keep on improving. Lastly, the reduced sense of success is characterised by a negative perception of athletes about their own performance in order to fulfil their tasks.5
A recent publication6 has reviewed all the research that has been carried out to date in order to study the burnout level in young athletes who have specialised in a single sport at a very early stage compared to those athletes who specialise in multiple sports at the same time. The conclusions are based on the review of 8 research articles that had to meet the following criteria: be published in English, burnout had to be measured by means of the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (ABQ) and the participants had to be athletes aged between 12 and 19 years old. Besides, the athletes had to be clearly classified as specialised athletes or not according to a clear criteria. In total, 1429 athletes (825 boys and 529 girls) with a mean age of 15,29 years old (range between 12.5 and 17.2) who practised handball (n=462), football (n=368), swimming (n=366), track and field (n=70), volleyball (n=33), tennis (n=11) and judo (n=4) were analysed. In two of the studies, the sport practised by the boys and girls (n=119) was not specified. The selected athletes belong to both regional and national sports academies, and even in five of the studies, the athletes were part of academies which strive for excellence.
The results of the review suggest some really remarkable conclusions:
- Athletes who specialised in a single sport showed higher levels of burnout than those who specialise in multiple sports at the same time.
- The specialised athletes had a much lower personal perception of their own abilities to achieve success than those athletes who participate in multiple sports: 1.64 vs. 2.51 (p<0.01) (the scale is from 1 to 5).
- Loss of performance was also much worse in specialised athletes compared to athletes playing multiple sports (1.82 vs. 1.40) (p<0.01).
- Finally, athletes specialised in a single sport showed greater physical and psychological fatigue than athletes participating in multiple sports: 2.44 vs. 1.99 (p<0.01).
In conclusion, sports specialisation in adolescence may be associated with high levels of burnout in the dimensions of physical and psychological fatigue, loss of performance and personal perception of success. Avoiding excessive specialisation during adolescence could reduce the risk and severity of burnout. Consequently, it seems interesting to commit to broader and more diverse talent development programmes that allow not only improvement in young people, but also their enjoyment during process. It should be noted that very few of all those young athletes who play a sport will reach a high level. That is why the experiences during this process should be educational.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Feeley BT, Agel J, LaPrade RF. When is it too early for single sport specialization? Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(1):234-241.
2 Brenner JS. Sports specialization and intensive training in young athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3).
3 DiFiori JP, Brenner JS, Comstock D, et al. Debunking early single sport specialisation and reshaping the youth sport experience: an NBA perspective. Br J Sports Med. 2017;51:142-143.
4 Raedeke TD, Smith AL. Development and preliminary validation of an athlete burnout measure. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2001;23(4): 281-306.
5 Gustafsson H, DeFreese JD, Madigan DJ. Athlete burnout: review and recommendations. Curr Opin Psychol. 2017;16:109-113.
6 Giusti NE, Carder, SL, Vopat, L, et al. Comparing burnout in sport-specialing versus sport-sampling adolescent athletes. A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2010; 8(3).
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