For teenage athletes, playing multiple sports at a high level is demanding; research presented by Peter Shaw at the All-Ireland Postgraduate Conference held in MTU Cork in June highlighted sports clashing, increased risk of injury, less social time and too much training as some of the main challenges that athletes report. Thus, for many young athletes who aspire to high performance, there comes a point where they specialise; that is, they select a primary sport and invest their efforts in more intensive training. When undertaken during the late teenage years, specialisation is a normal part of athlete development. However, there is a growing concern in many parts of the world that an increasing number of children are specialising prematurely; that is, before they are physically, psychologically and socially ready to do so. As a result, many organizations have published position statements promoting multi-sport participation for children and young adolescents; these organizations include the International Olympic Committee and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Such position statements are based on the findings that (a) prematurely specialising may increase the risk of a child experiencing an injury, burnout, or dropping out of sport; and (b) prematurely specialising does not appear to provide any advantage in terms of reaching elite level sport.

While premature specialisation (also called early specialisation) is undoubtedly an important issue within youth sport research globally, to what extent is it an issue in Ireland? Anecdotally, the emphasis on multi-sport participation in Ireland is strong, especially due to the cultural influence of Gaelic Games. Our recent research explored the extent to which Irish children and young people aged 10-15 years, were specialising in sport.

To answer this question, we re-analysed the data from the 2018 Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity (CSPPA) study. A collaboration between Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and Healthy Ireland, CSPPA asked children and adolescents throughout the island to provide insights into their participation in physical activity, sport and physical education. While some 6,600 students from 115 schools across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland completed the CSPPA study, we analysed data from the 3,499 children aged 10–15 years who were actively participating in at least one community sports club at least one day per week.

The CSPPA survey did not explicitly ask about specialisation, so we had to combine a number of existing questions to gain a picture of specialisation. The survey did include questions about the number of sports played and number of days per week that each participant was active in sport. From those two questions, we could estimate specialisation.

We found that among children aged 10-12 years, premature specialisation is rare: only 5.7% of boys and 4.2% of girls met our definition of highly specialised. Even by 13-15 years old, those numbers only rise to 7.8% of boys & 5.8% of girls being highly specialised. These numbers are much lower than international comparisons, and suggests that, in general, premature specialisation is not a major issue within youth sport in Ireland. A caveat is warranted at this point; it is possible that concerning patterns exist in some places, but our findings suggest that premature specialisation is unlikely to be widespread in Ireland.

But that was not all the data revealed; perhaps the most interesting finding came when we considered family affluence. Contrary to findings from the USA where more affluent children were more likely to specialise, more affluent Irish children were more likely to do multi-sport. That is, specialisation in Ireland may arise from a lack of choice for youngsters and/or their parents, rather than a deliberate decision. Why is this the case? We speculate that the much reduced emphasis on sports scholarships within third level education in Ireland compared to the USA, and the centrality of Gaelic Games to sports participation in Ireland may be partially responsible.

So, if the major action point from these findings is for clubs, coaches, and administrators to consider how they might facilitate multi-sport participation for less affluent children, what support exists to guide stakeholders? One option is to repurpose the excellent Keep Youngsters Involved toolkit; originally designed to encourage athlete retention, it can also guide stakeholders who are looking to facilitate multi-sport participation. A collaboration of eight European organisations, the Keep Youngsters Involved project was co-funded by the Erasmus+ Sport programme.  The Project initially identified the 14 most important factors to prevent youngsters from dropping out from sport, and then developed a toolkit for stakeholders to work with. The toolkit consists of a set of card games, a participation ladder, and the quick scan Youth-score and is freely available here, alongside a detailed manual.

While premature specialisation does not appear to be a major issue for youth sport in Ireland, encouraging access to multiple sports in a healthy manner for all members of society remains a priority to enhance the health and wellbeing of the nation.

The full article, which was published in the Journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, is freely available here.