To specialise or not: The sporting conundrum facing parents and children

Sammie Wood grew up playing every sport the central New South Wales town of Grenfell could offer.

“A typical afternoon, I’d go down to the soccer field, do that, then I’d see the football [rugby league] training going on after that,” she says.

“It always ran a bit longer than the soccer, so I’d run around with that as well.

“If that wasn’t on, we’d have netball on a Thursday afternoon, and Friday night we’d have swimming club.”

Today, Wood is a Super W rugby star and she believes her mix of sports has made her a better all-around athlete — and more rounded generally.

A woman in a soccer kit jumps in excitement into a team-mate's arms
Sammie Wood celebrating after scoring for Canberra United in soccer’s old W-League in 2012.(GettyImages: Stefan Postles)

Balancing a child’s sporting passions with the time, financial and energy constraints of a family is never easy.

But there’s also another pressure that’s emerging from coaches, academies, the calendar and children themselves: specialising in a single sport.

10,000 hours shunned

Just this year, Joseph Suaalii signed a contract worth millions to play NRL as a 17-year-old. Child prodigies like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams set influential examples. And there’s a growing fascination with the 10,000-hour model for expertise, popularised by author Malcolm Gladwell.

Joseph Suaalii playing for the North Sydney Bears in 2021.
Joseph Suaalii played NRL as a 17-year-old this year.(Instagram: North Sydney Bears)

As a former AFL development manager, Lawrie Woodman has heard it all.

“There’s only a small percentage, 1 or 2 per cent of people in the pathway that get through to professional level in the end.   

“What I’d prefer to see is a balanced approach where kids develop life-long love of physical activity and those sports and continue to play them for as long as they can.”

His views echo the official policy of the AIS. The institute, along with the Australian Sports Medicine Cooperative, has provided a statement to guide parents, coaches and children noting the increasing pressure to specialise.

With the exception of rhythmic gymnastics, there is no evidence that early specialisation is beneficial in achieving elite status.

Rhythmic gymnast Danielle Prince
Gymnastics is the only exception to AIS recommendations against specialising at a young age.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Athletes who maintain a broader sporting base until after the age of 12 then specialise, are more likely to be successful in their chosen sport. Popular concepts that advocate early specialisation, such as the 10,000 hours concept, were never intended to be applied to sport.

Young athletes with overuse injuries are more likely to be highly specialised than uninjured athletes. And there is evidence that early sport specialisation may lead to lower overall perception of health, giving up at young age or possible burnout, and less fun.

Multi-sport perspectives

Mick Byrne is coach of the new Fijian Drua Super Rugby side and understands the pressures to specialise.

“I know it’s difficult now because there’s so much money in sport.

Ultimately though he believes children should play multiple sports for as long as possible.

Indeed, he played league, union and Aussie rules in his youth, and won a VFL premiership with Hawthorn before moving into coaching rugby.

A man jumps above a pack in the 1980s VFL
Mick Byrne leaping for a mark while playing for Hawthorn.(Supplied:

“If kids specialise too early, they lose the ability to grow other skillsets, so they become reliant on the sort of coach they have.

“Any chance you can get for your kids to play various sports and pick up varying skills is going to carry forward for them.”

“I know at some stage you have to choose, but if you can give them the opportunity to experience different sports, different skillsets, they can choose at the right age.”

Sammie Wood’s sporting journey has taken her to the Young Matildas, to scoring in the W-League, playing for NSW Country in rugby league and now to Super W rugby and the Wallaroos squad.

She’s acutely aware of the sacrifices made by her entire family.

A woman in a rugby league jersey with her parents on either side of her.
Sammie Wood (centre) with parents Trevor and Linda.(Supplied)

“My siblings found it really hard because my parents were always away with my sport, so I felt to blame because they didn’t always get the time with their parents,” she says, wiping away a tear.

“Looking back now and understanding how much effort Mum put into it, yeah, it’s a big thing.”

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