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Early Specialization In Children: Physical Literacy And Multidisciplinarity

Golfeur junior

Does your child play one single sport all year round? If so, I would invite you to read this.

To begin, what is physical literacy? Here is the official definition: physical literacy is defined as "the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for participation in lifelong physical activity" (Whitehead, 2016). In addition, this is very closely linked to the long-term development of athletes, also known by the acronym LTAD, as well as the importance of a multi-sport practice.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many young children, between 4 and 5 years old, play a single sport throughout the year. This implies countless practices, games, and training sessions for a small human being seeking effective motor development. This concept is also known as early specialization. Unfortunately, many people endorse this vision thinking that it is the one and only path to the greatest athletic abilities for their child.

As discussed previously in the excellent article by my colleague Michel Dubord, some parents invest a lot of time and money in their children to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams... But what are the repercussions on your child's physical literacy?

The childhood stage

Childhood is a critical stage in the quest for motor development that encompasses all fundamental motor skills (FMS). This branch concerns locomotion (running, frolicking, jumping, dodging, etc.), balance, manipulation of objects as well as all the principles of proprioception (abilities to locate one's body in space) associated with it.

When the developmental bases are neglected to intensely prioritize a single sport from young childhood, the problems of transfer of motor skills become more pronounced. Children may struggle to participate in various sports if they lack fundamental motor skills. For example, to play baseball, basketball, football, handball, rugby, and softball, one must master the basic skill of catching. It is therefore essential to develop fundamental skills and movements through fun activities and easier games. In this sense, this is where the role of physical and sports education, as well as the importance of multisport programs comes into play.

The contribution of physical education and health

Physical education and health classes allow students to develop their motor skills in a supervised and planned manner. In fact, they follow a progression of learning according to the stages of individual and physical development. They will develop three disciplinary skills from this approach: acting (individual athletic skills), interacting (collective athletic skills) as well as adopting a healthy and active lifestyle (lifestyle habits). However, just like other school subjects, you have to devote time to it outside of school hours to achieve real gains.

What if we talked about late specialization instead?

Once adolescence begins, between the ages of 11 and 12, it is now relevant to start specializing in a given sport according to research by Karin Moesch and colleagues in 2011. In their research, they allude to late specialization. The reason is quite simple: all the progress they make is reinvested effectively in one way or another. They will be even more competent in solving the physical problems they may be facing at this precise moment. Obviously, it will not be 100% effective, but we will notice a certain facility in carrying out the task.

For reference, here are the stages of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) that can help you narrow down which chapter your child falls into and which themes to prioritize.

DLTA Canada graphique
Source: DLTA Canada

The repercussions of late specialization for a young Quebec golfer

Very recently, some excellent news was announced for a young golfer from the Lanaudière region. Justin Charlebois, 17 years old, will continue his studies and “golf” development at the International Junior Golf Academy located in Orlando next fall! A world-renowned institution in the development of junior golfers. An interesting recruitment pool for American universities. This academy advocates the 3-factor approach (Athletic, personal, and academic development).

Justin Charlebois Golf
Justin Charlebois

What helped Justin achieve this goal was mainly through his athletic skills and academic involvement. Since a very young age, he has practiced a multitude of sports such as running (road and trail), hockey (Division 1 and 2), road cycling, tennis, basketball, functional strength training, just to name a few! Academically, he had the opportunity to go to PIEP in Terrebonne (multi-sport primary school) as well as Collège Saint-Sacrement (secondary school) in which he played hockey for 5 years.

This varied curriculum also translates into his physical training. He has the chance to train with personal trainer Annelies Ricard and is already starting with a significant advantage over anyone else with little or no training background. This can be learned, but he can work more specifically for his age and train for competition (refer to LTAD above). Even if most of the sports he practiced were not practiced in a competitive setting, they will have served as an investment in some way in his golf!

An example among professional athletes

Take Patrick Mahomes for example. An NFL star whose success did not fall directly from the sky. Since a young age, he has been an exceptional player in baseball, soccer, golf, and basketball. Following his rookie year at Texas Tech, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the MLB. His success and athleticism allowed him to perform like no other as a quarterback in the NCAA and thus get drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. The reason described by the Chiefs recruiters: Patrick Mahomes is a complete athlete with mobility and knowledge of his body like few others. You all know what this player has accomplished in recent years.

Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes, source: Men's Journal

Why these two examples? Practicing a variety of sports could be more than positive for the long-term development of your child, and this is where we notice that it prevails over early specialization. M. Fransen and colleagues (2012) conducted a study that showed that children who played various sports improved their physical abilities such as coordination and vertical jumping. Important assets in overall athletic development to overcome any challenge presented to us.

Please note, that I am not saying that you should register your child in a league for each sport practiced so that their development is as optimal as possible! You will certainly run out of hours in a day to accomplish everything and the costs would be far too high. It's all well and good at the moment if your child excels in a single sport, but you are not doing your offspring any favors by hastily specializing them. Let's help them develop effectively and push back the achievement of your unfulfilled dreams. Your child should experience as much variety as possible, both competitively and recreationally!

Thank you for your time,

Nicola Gauthier

Physical education and health teacher

PGA Canada/Quebec Apprentice Professional

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