The Aftermath of Early Sports Specialization for Highly Qualified Swimmers


Early specialization is one of the most striking features of modem sports. Quite often, 14- and 15-year-old athletes are victorious and win prizes at the world and Olympic levels in many sports events, including swimming.

Practical experience shows that to win at that level, it is necessary to pass through the initial instruction stage by the age of 7 or 8 years, to begin intensified specialization with sufficiently large training loads in the chosen sports event by 10-11 years, and to win at a level commensurate with the results for a Master of Sport at 12-13.

Very few investigators have been interested in the influence that early sports specialization has on the young ath1ete's body, how it affects his entire subsequent life. In our opinion, the time has come to decide whether early sports specialization is good or bad.

We studied athletes who began specializing in swimming early (at 7-8 years), met the criteria for a USSR Master of Sport at age 11-15, later took part successfully in high level competitions, joined the USSR national teams, and achieved results at a national and international level. After some time had passed (between 2 and 20 years after ending their sports careers), we tried to obtain exhaustive answers about how early sessions in a sport, including sports, had affected the social, psychological, and medical aspects of the athletes' lives. The study took the form of a careful personal interrogation-interview of highly qualified swimmers and their coaches.

We found that the athletes in the early sports specialization group learned to swim at the age of

6.8 years (women) and 7.7 years (men), on the average. For the group with an ordinary specialization, the figures were 10.5 and 9.8 years, respectively.

For the swimmers in the first group the transition to intensified sports specialization came at 9.8 years for women and 10 years for men. Those in the second group were 12.6 and 12.1 years old, respectively.

Both the average data and numerous examples show that the athletes who began specialized training at 11 years or older Spent a longer time on the national team and ended their sports careers later.

Clearly, the earlier the athletes began specialized training, the shorter was their stay on the national team and the sooner they left bigĀ­-time sports. Thus, according to our research data, on average, swimmers with an early start in specializing stayed on the basic team component for 3.1 years (women) and 3.2 years (men). However, the athletes who specialized later on stayed on the team over 5 years.

Analysis of the sports qualification dynamics for the swimmers showed that those with an early sports specialization took an average of '7.5 years (women) and 10 years (men) to go from beginner to Master of Sport-International Class. For swimmers with an ordinary specialization, the results were, respectively, 6.5 and 8.2. Those who came to the pool at the age of 10-12 years covered this route faster (in 5-8 years).

Interestingly, the swimmers who had the shortest growth period, from the start of specialized training to the time when they met the standards for a Master of SportĀ­1nternational Class, were men who had begun specialized training at 13 years. 'They became Masters of Sport in 2.7 years. For women, these figures were 12 years of age and 2.2 years, respectively.

Page 132 

Fitness and Sports Review International, August 1992


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