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Sports talent programmes could be harmful for children’s long-term psychological wellbeing

A young girl practicing her gymnastics.
It’s thought that having a child specialise in a sport early will help them achieve elite levels of success. Master1305/ Shutterstock

Given the profit top sportspeople can make from being successful, it’s no wonder significant time, research, and money continues to be invested in programmes that aim to identify and develop future elite athletes. These talent programmes seek to discover young people who have an aptitude for sport by having them complete a series of physical, technical and psychological tests. But the young age of people who start these programmes has raised concerns about the potential long-term impact they could have on the children’s psychological wellbeing.

It’s thought by some coaches, parents and sports administrators that specialising in a specific sport early in childhood is necessary to achieve elite levels of success. This is why some talent identification programmes have a child specialise in a specific sport at a young age – sometimes as young as six or seven years old.

Depending on how early an intense commitment needs to be made, programmes are split into “early” or “late” specialisation. In many sports such as rugby, peak performance normally occurs between 20 and 30. In sports such as gymnastics and diving, the age an athlete peaks occurs earlier (usually late-teens or early 20s), so athletes may need to specialise in these sports at a very young age.

However, the choice to specialise in one sport is seldom decided solely by the child. Often, it’s influenced by parents and coaches who encourage the child to specialise early in the belief that this is the best route to success.

Early specialisation carries greater risk for athletes, with links to burnout, injury and dropout. An intense investment in sport at an early age may also impact on a child’s identity development, which is a key part of psychological development as they grow up. For example, if a child doesn’t have other hobbies or doesn’t try new activities, it can make them feel like their identity is solely tied to the sport they specialise in.

Young boys playing football.
The decision for a child to specialise is a sport is rarely made by the child themselves. Fotokostic/ Shutterstock

If an young person’s identity is tied to a single, narrow perception of themselves, they also run the risk of having their sense of self disrupted when this identity is challenged – say through injury, underperformance, or retirement. This could have significant consequences on their confidence, mental health and wellbeing.

In short, having a child specialise in one sport early can limit their identity development – subsequently leading to poor psychological wellbeing. This is why there have been recent calls for talent identification programmes to either be suspended outright or at least delayed until adolescence.

This delay will give a young athlete more time to develop identities outside of their sport. It’s also thought that a delayed, varied approach – where young athletes can try a range of different sports – is more likely to produce elite performers in the long run.

Duty of care

Currently, the Rugby Football Union has set out tight controls limiting how much time players can spend on the pitch depending on their age – and when seasons start and end. These stipulations are laid out to ensure young players don’t over-train or over-compete at an early. This control measure gives players the summer months and more time in a week to engage in other activities. But more sports need to follow suit.

The 2017 Duty of Care in Sport report commissioned by the UK government called for all national governing bodies to adopt a duty of care policy. The report set out recommendations to ensure that athletes are supported during and after their career. These include providing athletes of all ages with greater mental health support during their career and leading in to retirement.

But the report doesn’t make specific mention of the ethics around these talent identification programmes. Nor does the report discuss the need to encourage young athletes to sample multiple sports rather than specialise, and the importance of allowing them to transfer out of the sport if they wish. This is where national governing bodies need to do more work in educating people about the potential harm of early specialisation programmes.

Parents and coaches will also play an important role in the future to ensure children aren’t being coerced into specialising, and that they have the space to explore other hobbies, talents and identities.

Despite the significant investment in these programmes, we remain no closer to agreeing on a set of criteria that might predict talent – such as which body type or psychological characteristics might predict success. If these programmes are to continue, more needs to be done by national governing bodies, coaches and parents to ensure children are able to explore more than just one identity as they grow up to promote long-term psychological wellbeing.

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