Athletes in the Making

Athlete development - youth to adult and sport specialization.

In 2021, I facilitated virtual workshops for health professionals in the Calgary area to learn and connect with one another. The information in this post was presented by Whitney Dikoume during one of these workshops. 

Whitney can be reached through her Instagram. She is an athletic trainer, personal trainer and coach working in the Calgary area.

The line “athlete mentality” gets thrown around a lot for many different reasons. Growing up an athlete myself, I figured I had that mentality, and growing up a Kobe fan and the ‘Mamba Mentality’. Most athlete I have treated as a physio client mention this type of mindset when intentionally, or unintentionally, playing through pain and injury.

Developing an athlete, mentally and physically, starts at a young age – and it begins with physical literacy.

  • Physical literacy begins from age 0-12
  • We start developing certain skillsets depending on the sports and activities we’re playing
  • It includes the fundamentals and learning to train
  • We often find ourselves here after an injury, or as a health professional, when we are progressing people through their injuries

I find this is the behavior change and mindset shift I’m looking to cultivate in patients and individuals who have had injuries or who are looking for ways to prevent injury.

  • This often encompasses individuals aged 17 years or older
  • Starts to incorporate concepts like ‘training to train’, ‘training to compete’ and ‘training to win’

Specialization often occurs at a young age, sometimes before 10 years old, and studies have found (depending on the sport) that this can lead to burnout and injuries.

  • Limited social support in a single sport
  • Environment controls where the child may think it is ‘normal’ having a verbally abusive coach or unsupportive team
  • Can lead to high drop out rates, especially for youth girl athletes

For many sports, kids playing different sports in different seasons is essential to build their athletic ability and to not burnout.

  • Youth athletes develop social skills within multiple sports
  • Fosters positive mental health
  • Allows the child to learn their identity and/or worth is not tied to success in the one sport

Society currently has us believing that we must hit the 10,000 hours or extreme dedication to become good at something. Yes, practice can improve performance, however, excelling at a sport, and having long-term success isn’t always due to specializing early.

Studies suggest that early sport specialization can lead to:

  • Overuse injuries
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Psychological needs dissatisfaction

It is worth noting that the research in this field is of limited studies, as the definition of specialization and how it has been studied has not be standardized, making it difficult to draw high-quality conclusions.

Mosher A, Till K, Fraser-Thomas J, Baker J. Revisiting Early Sport Specialization: What’s the Problem? Sports Health. 2022;14(1):13-19. doi:10.1177/19417381211049773

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