How to Build a Successful Child Athlete

How to Build a Successful Child Athlete

James Westhorpe

 Twitter:  coach_jamesw



̴1600 Words, 7-10 minute read


Each year children are inspired by their favourite sports stars to participate in a given sport, they try to emulate their idols in the hope of becoming the next Lebron James, Roger Federer, or Cristiano Ronaldo. Children have a crystal clear vision they can one day become that person who everyone idolises without an ounce of doubt in their minds.
But let’s not forget the pushy parent either. We’ve all seen that parent who coaches their child from the boundary line, invests in private coaching lessons, puts their child on ‘the perfect diet’, and will have them training the house down as if they’re already elite at a given sport.

These are two common scenarios associated with early specialisation, which refers to youth athletes focusing on a single sport to attain expertise and high levels of achievement, rather than focusing on the ‘fun’ aspects of competition (4). On the contrary, long term athletic development, also known as multilateral development, is a program based on biological age, rather than chronological age, which focuses on training, recovery, and competition to maximize the performance of young athletes over the long term. The program must be athlete centred and coach driven, and supported by administration, sport science, and sponsors (12).

There is some debate on the when, how, and why a junior athlete should specialise at a particular sport (4). Thus, the aim of the article is to discuss the implications of early specialisation, how to develop an athlete long term, and when to specialise at a particular sport.


Is Early Specialisation Worth it?

When deciding whether to specialise it’s important to understand the risks versus the reward. There is a sound argument for the ’10,000 hour rule’ which refers to the earlier a child can specialise and start practicing the skill of that sport, the better chance they’ll have at making the elite level of competition. If it were true that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice was required to master a skill then it would require just over three hours of practice per day for 10 years (1). It must be noted that the original 10,000 hour rule was for chess players and musicians, not athletes; suggesting the findings may not be transferable to sports (4, 8).

Early Specialisation and Injury Risk

Children who specialise in a sport too early are more likely to suffer from overuse injuries, burnout, and dropping out of sport all together (11). A study by Carlson (3) demonstrated that children who specialised at tennis from the age of eleven tended to lose self-confidence as they progressed through training, developed at a quicker rate during early adolescence compared to the non-specialisation children, and experience greater pressure to succeed from coaches and parents. Further, early specialisation can elicit a quicker improvement in performance, however performances in competition will be inconsistent with peak performance being achieved at the ages of 15-16, followed by a high incidence of burnout and quitting the sport by eighteen years of age (5).

Children involved with sports participation who take part in the same sport for more than eight months of the year at a time are at a significantly higher risk of injury (6), as well as those who participate in sport for more than 16 hours per week (9). Children who do participate in sports for more than sixteen hours per week should be monitored for decrements in performance which could be related to overuse injury, burnout, and overtraining (9).

Motor Skill Development

Early specialisation can also result in reduced motor skill development, which can be caused by practicing the specific skill for their sport rather than focusing on the development of a range of motor skills (10). According to Balyi (1) children between the ages of nine and twelve are in the development stage of acquiring the fundamental movement skills which form the foundations to athletic development. The fundamental movement skills include running, throwing, hopping, bounding, and jumping. Whilst it is also important to introduce the ABC’s of athleticism – agility, balance, coordination, and speed – which will lay the pillars of sound athletic ability in the following years (1).


Developing Young Athletes, Long Term.

From above we can see that trying to specialise from a younger age in an attempt to gain a competitive edge may not be so great for long term performance. So how should the coach, parent, and young athlete go about developing over the long term?

Strength & Conditioning Effects on Maturation

Firstly we must dispel the myth that athletic training, particularly resistance training, stunts the growth and maturation of pre-pubescent children. Resistance training has consistently been demonstrated to benefit the development and athletic performance of children by increasing muscular strength, power, and endurance without increasing muscle hypertrophy, mainly due to the lack of anabolic hormones, predominantly testosterone (7). Kaleth & Mikesky (7) further propose there is no added benefit to performing structured high-intensity aerobic training programs in children due to their underdeveloped cardiovascular systems (such as a smaller heart and lower blood volume), and suggest that specialised training appears to offer little improvement beyond those of regular physical activity.

Models for Athletic Development

To lay solid foundations for a child to build his/her athletic career, Balyi (1) developed a four- and five-stage model as a guide for the development of early and late specialisation sports respectively (Table 1). The main sports that are considered early specialisation are swimming and gymnastics (more so in females than males), whereas sports that are seen to be late specialisation sports include athletics, combative sports, racquet sports, rowing, and all team sports. These sports require a generalised approach to early training, with emphasis on fundamental motor skills along with technical and tactical skills (1).
Table 1: Four- and five-stage model the development of early and late specialisation sports (1).

An example is provided below on the development of an Australian Rules football athlete using the late specialisation model.

Phase FUNdamental Training to Train Training to Compete Training to Win
Chronological Age 9-12 13-16 16-18 18+
Goal • Fun games with participation encouragement • Overall development of sport skills • Development sport specific skills and specific physical conditioning • Aim to improve specific physical capacity, and specific skills
Developmental Goals • General skill and overall development

• Running, Jumping, Throwing

• ABC’s of athleticism

• Bodyweight strength exercises training hinge, squat, lunge, upper body push and pull patterns

• Teaching simple rules and sports ethics

• Motor learning of sport specific skill

• Introduce mental preparation

• Introduce emotional development

• Bodyweight strength exercises moving into free-weights training hinge, squat, lunge, upper body push and pull patterns

• Introduce basic ballistic and plyometric exercise

• Development of specific tactical and technical preparation

• Advanced mental preparation

• Position specific skills

• Position specific physical development

• Advanced development of technical, tactical, and playing skills

• Advanced development of physical capacities

• Heavy resistance training moving towards intermediate- advanced periodization techniques

Physical Activity Requirement • Physical Activity 5-6 days per week • Sport specific training 3 times per week, other sports participation 3 times per week, moving in to sport specific training 6-9 times per week • Sport specific technical and tactical training, and fitness training 9-12 times per week • Sport specific technical and tactical training, and fitness training 12-15 times per week


The model shown above (Table 1) may be seen as being quite simple, and not showing a practical guideline to each stage of the athletic development process. Lloyd et al. (8) developed the ten pillars for successful long-term athletic development, which gives a detailed insight in to the recommendations for developing a successful long term athletic development focused program (presented in table 2).

When to Specialise?

The debate about when a child should begin to specialise at their chosen sport depends mainly on their gender and the sport they wish to specialise at. Bompa and Haff (2) provide specialisation recommendations for major sports in the US by age which provide a basic guideline.

Sport Age to Start Specialisation
Archery 16-18
Athletics (Sprinting) 14-16
Athletics (Long Distance Running) 17-20
Athletics (Jumping and Throwing) 16-19
Baseball 15-16
Basketball 14-16
Boxing 16-17
Canoeing 15-17
Cycling 16-18
Field Hockey 14-16
Figure Skating 11-13
Football (American) 16-18
Gymnastics (Women) 9-10
Gymnastics (Men) 14-15
Ice Hockey 13-14
Judo 15-16
Rowing 16-18
Rugby (League and Union) 16-17
Soccer 14-16
Swimming (Women) 11-13
Swimming (Men) 13-15
Tennis (Women) 11-13
Tennis (Men) 12-14
Volleyball 15-16
Weightlifting 17-18
Wrestling 17-19


But what about the argument about the greatest players being specialists as children at their chosen sport? Such as Ronaldo only ever kicking around soccer ball, Federer just hitting tennis balls, or Tiger Woods hitting gold balls. Well these guys are the top 1% of the top 1% and are almost certainly in a league of their own, there will more than likely be that outlier of an athlete who has specialised at a younger than recommended age and becomes something special, but the likelihood is very low. Previous findings suggest only around 0.2-0.5% who participate in high school sports actually make it to the professional level (11). However, the burning desire for recognition from parents, coaches, scouts, and media tend to fuel a child to specialise at a single sport, along with the assumption that to become the best they need to participate in one sport and only that sport from an early age (11).



Developing children needs to focus on the basics, don’t push them to progress too fast as this will more than likely cause overuse injuries, burnout, and at worst quitting sport completely. Remember to encourage children to participate in a wide range of sports and develop them athletically in the fundamental movement patterns and skills, and let them decide for themselves what they would like to specialise in.

  1. Balyi I. Sport System Building and Long-Term Athletic Development in British Columbia. Sports Med. 2001 January.
  2. Bompa TO, Haff GG. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. 5th United States of America: Human Kinetics; 2009.
  3. Carlson R. The Socialization of Elite Tennis Players in Sweden: An Analysis of the Players’ Backgrounds and Development. Sociol Sport J. 1988;5:241-256.
  4. Feeley BT, Agel J, LaPrade RF. When is it Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? Am J Sports Med. 2015;44(1):234-241.
  5. Harre D. Trainingslehre. Berlin: Sportverlag; 1982.
  6. Jayanthi NA, LaBella CR, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR. Sports-Specialized Intensive Training and the Risk of Injury in Young Athletes. Am J Sports Med. 2015 February;20(10):1-8.
  7. Kaleth AS, Mikesky AE. Impact of Early Sport Specialization: A Physiological Perspective. Joperd. 2010 October;81(8):29-33.
  8. Lloyd RS, Cronin JB, Faigenbaum AD, Haff GG, Howard R, Kraemer WJ, et al. National Strength and Conditioning Association Position Statement on Long-Term Athletic Development. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 June;30(6):1491-1509.
  9. Lloyd RS, Oliver JL, Faigenbaum AD, Howard R, De Ste Croix MBA, Williams CA, et al. Long-Term Athletic Development, Part 2: Barriers to Success and Potential Solutions. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May;29(5):1451-1464.
  10. Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. Early Sport Specialisation, does it lead to long-term problems? Br J Sports Med. 2013 November;47(17):1060-1061.
  11. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, et al. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sport Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health. 2015 October;7(5):437-442.
  12. Robertson S, Way R. Long Term Athletic Development. Coaches Report. 2005;11(3):6-12.


Please Login to Comment.