Specialisation Is Not Fun

Why do we play sport?

There are a number of different reasons. Some play to stay fit, some play to be a part of a team or a community, and a small minority play for a living. Many in that last category will tell you, ‘It’s a job.’

That is sad. Even if sport is your job, it should still be fun. Playing sport should always be about enjoyment and personal satisfaction. If it isn’t then maybe it is time to pack it in.

This week five time FIH world player of the year Jamie Dwyer played his last international match in Australia. Jamie is 37 years old and hoping to attend his fourth Olympic Games. In that final game he did not go through the motions, he was buzzing around causing Great Britain’s defenders to scurry, just as he has been doing for the past 16 years. He even scored two goals.

Talking to him before the game and in interviews he gave the story was the same, he was going to miss going to training, because he loves what he does. He certainly doesn’t do it for the money, as Hockey players rewards in monetary terms are non-existent. He has ambitions and goals, but it is a genuine love of the game, and what he does that has kept him going.

Mark Schwarzer is another that if you are lucky enough to talk to will tell you that the driving motivation to keep going is a love of the game. It is not money; although he would have been rewarded well for his career. He knows he will be a long time retired and he wants to play as long as he can purely because he loves what he does.

Talk to sportsmen and women of this ilk and all will tell you that when they were young they played a myriad of sports, and when they hit their teens there was either one they excelled at more, or in most cases there was one that they enjoyed more. The one they enjoyed more, they played more, and practised more, and as a result ended up without even knowing it reaching the famous 10,000 hours in preparation for a crack at playing at the elite level.

Yet so many sports are trying to force children to specialise in one sport earlier and earlier. The fear is that many of these children may well reach the 10,000hrs of specialist training, but will they want to play at the end of it? Are they enjoying the sport? Do they play with passion or are they automatons playing to a set system that has been drilled into them from that early age? Will there be the freedom of expression, the individual skill, and moments of brilliance that fans pay to watch should they make it?

It is interesting to note that one of the most high profile athletes in the world at the moment, and one at the top of his game did NOT specialise as a youngster. The Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry played baseball, American football, soccer and basically every sport that was available. His success now has some who had encouraged specialisation from a young age re-thinking their processes, and so it should.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Olympic Committee have in recent times published a report based on research carried out that supports the position that children should sample different sports, rather than picking one too early.

They have found that specializing in one sport at a young age is unnecessary and may even be unhelpful. The report also stated that early focus on one sport, and they stress only one sport, can actually increase the risk of injuries due to overuse and raise the potential for burnout. The report also stated that the specialisation in one sport can deny impressionable athletes a diversity of experiences that will benefit them as they develop both as athletes and into adulthood.

The final argument against specialisation was “It’s not as fun.”

In Australia there have been any number of papers looking into why such a high percentage of the nations top athletes come from country areas. One theory was that country kids rode their bikes, walked or ran to school so were physically stronger and fitter.

The most probable reason is that in country areas young sports people, male and female, play up above their age group to make up numbers. If they are small they learn how to deal with bigger opponents and not get smashed. They develop that skill, that awareness. On the other hand a bigger child, who may not be as nimble, learns to run down angles so they do not have to rely on pace to keep up. They adapt and develop to the circumstances and become more rounded athletes. Also, many country children play a myriad of sports so they have that rounded experience.

It is sad that in a city such as Perth with so many open spaces you rarely see a group of children kicking a football of any code on their own. Occasionally there will be a father, with a son or daughter, but never ten to twenty children having organised a game on their own with complete strangers. How often do you see children playing in the cricket nets in a park on their own?

What happened? Are parents too scared to let children go and play on their own? Or is it now as one child said to his father when he suggested he go and practise on his own, ‘Why? I train twice a week and play at the weekend.’

Where is the joy, the fun in playing sport. Wanting to be outside with a ball in every moment of spare you have and your parents almost having to chase you home. That urge to kick a ball when you see one lying there and from that a game evolves.

Sure there are other distractions such as Playstation and X Box, which were never there in the past but…

Sport at the highest level is business, but sadly it is becoming a business at the lowest level, with children’s coaches demanding payment, and academies demanding payment. Parents pay these fees all because they believe their child may be the next superstar in the making. The truth is very few are.

Maybe it is time to be like Jamie Dwyer, Mark Schwarzer and Stephen Curry and rediscover the fun of playing sport, all sports and what enjoyment that brings. Then let the child find the one they enjoy the most and pursue their ambitions accordingly.

Sport has to be fun at every level. It can be competitive, but the competitors must enjoy what they do because that translates into pride in performance.


Specialisation Is Not Fun

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