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Specialize or not: the sporting puzzle for parents and children

Sammie Wood grew up enjoying all the sports the city of Grenfell in central New South Wales had to offer.

“On a typical afternoon, I would go down to the football field, do that, then I would see the football [rugby league] Then it goes on, “she says.

“It always went a little longer than football, so I ran around with it too.

“If it weren’t for that, we’d have netball on a Thursday afternoon and a swim club on Friday evening.”

Today, Wood is a Super W rugby star, and she believes her sports mix made her a better all-round athlete – and generally rounder.

Sammie Wood celebrates after scoring for Canberra United in the old W-League in 2012. (GettyImages: Stefan Postles)

It is never easy to balance a child’s athletic passions with the time, financial and energetic constraints of a family.

But there is another pressure from coaches, academies, the calendar, and the kids themselves: to specialize in a single sport.

Avoided 10,000 hours

It wasn’t until that year that Joseph Suaalii signed a multi-million dollar deal to play NRL as a 17-year-old. Child prodigies like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams set influential examples. And the 10,000-hour expert knowledge model popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell is growing in fascination.

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

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

“There is only a small percentage, 1 or 2 percent of the people along the way who end up reaching a professional level.

“What I would rather see is a balanced  -proach where children develop a lifelong love of physical activity and these sports and keep doing them for as long as possible.”

His views reflect the official policy of the AIS. The institute, along with the Australian Sports Medicine Cooperative, issued a statement warning parents, coaches and children of the increasing pressure to specialize.

With the exception of rhythmic gymnastics, there is no evidence that early specialization is an advantage in achieving elite status.

Rhythmic gymnast Danielle PrinceGymnastics is the only exception to the AIS recommendations against specialization at a young age.A -: Dan Himbrechts)

Athletes who maintain a broader sporting base until after the age of 12 and then specialize are more likely to be successful in their sport. Popular concepts that advocate early specialization, such as the 10,000 hour concept, were never intended for sports.

Young athletes with overuse injuries are more likely to be highly specialized than uninjured athletes. And there is evidence to suggest that exercising early on can result in lower overall health perceptions, giving up at a young age, or possible burnout and less fun.

Multisport perspectives

Coach of the new Fijian team Drua Super Rugby, Mick Byrne understands the pressure to specialize.

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

“If you can get a contract at 16 or 17, you can go for life, so there are pros and cons to both.”

Ultimately, however, he believes that children should practice different sports for as long as possible.

In fact, he played league, union and Aussie rules in his youth and won a VFL premiere with Hawthorn before moving to rugby coach.

A man jumps over a pack in the 1980s VFLMick Byrne jumps for a mark while playing for Hawthorn. (Delivered to: HawthornFC.com.au)

“When children specialize too early, they lose the ability to develop other skills and so depend on the type of coach they have.

“Every chance you give your children to practice different sports and acquire different skills is passed on for them.”

“I know you have to make a decision at some point, but if you give them the opportunity to experience different sports and different skills, they can choose at the right age.”

Sammie Wood’s athletic journey took her to the Young Matildas, to goals in the W-League, played for NSW Country in the rugby league and now to the Super W rugby and the Wallaroos squad.

She is very aware of the sacrifices of her entire family.

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

“My siblings found it very difficult because my parents were always gone with my sport, so I felt guilty because they didn’t always have time with their parents,” she says, wiping away a tear.

“Now when I look back and understand how much effort Mum put into it, yes, it’s a big deal.”

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