Specialization and Training Volumes: What does it all mean?

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2011.

A recent article from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports titled “Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports” concluded that athletes who specialized later (mid to late teens) fared better than those who specialized in a sport at an earlier age. In truth, the study focused more on training volume, than specialization.

The study compared near-elite to elite athletes in Denmark. The near-elite group practiced more in their sport between the ages of 0-9, 9-12 and 12-15, and their training volume peaked during the 12-15 age group. The elite group gradually increased its training volume and surpassed the near-elites between 15-18 and 18-21. The researchers used this information to conclude that those who specialize late (mid to late teens) rather than early (prior to the onset of puberty) ultimately reach a higher level of performance.

The problem, as Dr. Ross Tucker pointed out on his blog, The Science of Sport, is that training volume does not mean specialization. The near-elites averaged 10.49 hours per week of training in their sport (compared to 8.14 hours for the elites) in the 12-15 age category; that leaves time for participation in another sport or activity.

Dr. Tucker proposed two models to explain the training volume trajectories: (1) motivation/psychological and (2) talent/physiological. Of course, as with most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

The talent model suggests that the athletes with a higher ceiling likely needed less practice as youths because they fared well competitively without the extra practice – they are naturally gifted. Their peers with lower ceilings had to practice more to keep up and stay competitive, but as the athletes moved toward higher levels of competition and specialization in their late teens, their ceiling came into view, and they realized that they lacked the stuff (height, fast-twitch muscle fiber, strength, etc) of elite competitors so their practice declined. Essentially, they hit their performance peak in their mid-teens and their effort and practice gradually tailed off as they realized they were not going to make it to the elite level.

The psychological model suggests that parents were the primary motivator for the near-elites during their higher training volume as youths and early teens, and as these athletes progressed, they either found other interests, burned out or lacked the internal motivation to persist through more demanding training. The elite group started slower and built their internal motivation.

Both models caution against early specialization. In the talent model, early specialization is not enough to overcome lack of natural talent in the long run. In the motivation model, early specialization leads athletes to burnout or quit before they reach the elite level. Either way, whether through motivation or talent, those who progress gradually and specialize later reach a higher level of performance in the long run.

An alternative explanation is the concept of Mindset developed by Stanford University professor Dr. Carol Dweck. Rather than the near-elites hitting their ceiling after early success, the early success may have led to the development of a Fixed Mindset. Because they were good and talented during childhood, people (parents, coaches, teachers) likely focused on the outcome in their feedback. Meanwhile, the late bloomers who were not as successful in early childhood may have received more effort-related feedback which developed a Growth Mindset.

Player A grows early. He is a big, strong, aggressive player who dominates because of his speed, strength and size between the ages of 9 and 15. His identity starts to become one of a jock. He is praised for performance, so he focuses on his strengths to maximize performance – he relies on his size, speed and strength advantages to bully other players.

People expect performance and constantly reward him for his performance. Parents say things like “You scored 2 goals; you’re a great player.” Consequently, he develops a Fixed Mindset and believes in his innate talent. He spends less time developing other skills because any skill which causes an initial struggle damages his ego and decreases his motivation to practice. He concentrates on demonstrating his talent and views mistakes – a requisite for learning and development – as a sign of failure, so he quits the task.

Player B, meanwhile, cannot bully other players. As a late bloomer, he is less successful between 9-15, so he is unlikely to wrap up his identity in being a jock. He finds ways to stay in the game with his hustle, tenacity and maybe a key skill.

He hears comments from coaches and parents pertaining to his effort, “You’re important to the team because you play really hard” rather than his performance and this leads to a Growth Mindset. When he practices, he does not view mistakes as a threat to his ego; instead, mistakes are an opportunity for improvement. When he makes a mistake, it motivates him to work harder to master the task. When he eventually masters the task, it enhances his motivation to work harder and master a newer, harder task.

At 16, let’s say, the two players equal out in size, strength and speed. Player B is now more skilled, so he moves ahead of Player A. Player A will be de-motivated because of his early success and his Fixed Mindset. He will perceive their equality as a sign that he is not good enough or that he has hit his ceiling, while Player B will perceive himself as just starting to grow into his ability.

Player A did not peak necessarily. Instead, he needs to develop the skills that he ignored. Rather than relying on his physical advantages, now that the advantages have disappeared, he needs to augment his physical talent with greater skill, technique and game understanding. However, he has a Fixed Mindset, and developing skills at that point is hard, especially when he is used to being the best, so he is de-motivated.

People with Fixed Mindsets do not practice hard because it is a sign of a lack of talent, and they believe in innate talent. Athletes at this age often do not practice hard or play hard so they have an excuse; they can blame their effort, not their lack of talent. They say things like “I could have won if I wanted, but I didn’t feel like playing hard today.”

Meanwhile, Player B with his Growth Mindset starts to see the result of his effort – he starts to improve and perform better and that reinforces his Growth Mindset. Rather than attributing his success to his talent – as does the early bloomer – he attributes his success to his work ethic, which fuels even more practice and effort.

This Mindset changes their practice habits at this point, as reflected in the training volume in the study. Player B works harder and keeps improving, while Player A does not work as hard and stops improving, as he wants to protect his talent and his ego. This does not mean that Player A hit his ceiling; maybe he simply hit a plateau and perceived it to be his ceiling. His Mindset affects his perceptions differently than Player B even though their talent, physiology and current performance level may be the same.

In a sense, it is not necessarily the early training volume or the early specialization, but the adulation from the early success, and the inability to maintain that childhood dominance, that led to the phenomena in the study. The way that coaches and parents provide feedback to a child athlete is of critical importance and may contribute to the patterns seen in the Danish study.

Physiology and genetics differ. Everyone has a different ceiling. However, very few individuals reach their ceiling in terms of athletic performance. Lance Armstrong probably maximized his physical gifts to their fullest; but, how many others truly push to the ceiling of their capabilities, either because they never find the right sport, never find the right training program, never find the right competitive environment, etc?

Every time society believes that humankind has reached the limit on human performance, someone surpasses it, like with the four-minute mile. Once the original surpasses that limit, suddenly dozens of others are able to surpass it. Does that mean the others improved their physical prowess once someone else paved the way or does it relate to the psychological limitations we place upon our performance?

By Brian McCormick
Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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