Mar 03

Development Model vs Early Specialization Model – Part 2

Share This Post!

I am following a coaching page on Facebook, and I am somewhat taken back by comments from swim coaches about training methods, especially for the 8-9 and 10-12-year-old athletes. Just because a given training scheme produced famous Olympians in the past does not necessarily mean that the very same system is appropriate or should be ‘copied’ and applied to younger athletes. The tendency to use the so-called adult and professional athlete model and its inherent training methods creates negative consequences for developmental athletes, according to experts. Imitating such a model, wherein essentially ‘winning at all cost’ is the main and only purpose, produces ‘real or perceived’ stress due to forced early specialization, and potentially year-round training in some sports like gymnastics, hockey, soccer, or swimming to name a few, and tends to result in burnout and early dropout in sport.

Many of the Facebook comments posted are something along the lines of:

  • “Great success is also achieved by higher yardage.” But you must admit that great success is also achieved by higher yardage.”
  • “There is no one way to do the right thing, but maybe there is short way to do the same thing.”
  • “It depends at which level. Some kids need yardage to achieve stability needed to accommodate that desired intensive approach. You can’t ride if you can’t balance.”
  • “There are a lot of different ways to do the same thing and these different ways are not all that important.”
  • “I do a mix from straight 2000 swims to daily repeats of 25s and 50 sprints. I often have them go a short rest set of 100s (8-10) immediately after a set of 25s at which point I usually get a couple nice side aches. More fun to coach, the kids like it.”

I am very troubled by this drive to success attitude, supported with the argument that “kids actually like it!” or “their parents want it!” Age group programs should be based upon age appropriate systematic, progressive, sequential, and experiential development of physical attributes/components (physical literacy), and the enhancement of technical and mental skills (such as focus, concentration, creating ‘mental thought pictures’ for skill learning).

 …The child is not a miniature adult, and his (‘his’ is the original text) mentality is not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from adults, so that a child is not only smaller but also very dissimilar…

Claparède (1937), cited in J. Weineck (2010), Optimales Training. Sportbiologische Grundlagen zum Kinder and Jugendtraining [Optimal training. Sportbiological foundation/basis for children and youth training], pp. 169-188.

Triangle Diagram of Coaching Models












Schloder, M.E. (2017). Parents and children in sport. Lecture Sociology in Sport.

We should have learned after all these years that sport programs for children and youth have to be different! The biological differences between a 9-year-old and a 15-year-old are huge, and yet in spite of these differences, athletes are often trained the same way at every age level. According to Weineck, (2010), children and youth need an overall harmonic psycho-physical development by providing appropriate and abundant activities because children have a ‘distinctive and innate’ drive for movement. Just think of children sitting in the classroom fidgeting and being bored! Therefore, the design of a developmental training program, competition format, and recovery program should not only be age appropriate and athlete-centered supported by the sporting group (triangle illustration), but also needs to be balanced between FUN, skills, and goals, in my opinion.

Reasons Children and Youth Engage in Sports

Consideration needs to be given to the fact that not every child wants to, has to, or is actually interested in competition. The Canadian National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) cites four main reasons children participate in sports. Therefore, coaches need to know the given interest of their athletes, and not automatically assume that everyone joins the program in order to compete. Sport sociologists point to the fact that girls are generally more interested in joining a sport club for social reasons but also tend to drop out earlier, which could be based on the underlying fact that they may see the program mainly designed to develop elite athletes, not for FUN or achieving certain fitness levels.

diagram of the top 4 reasons children get involved in sports












Schloder, M.E. (2017). Parents and children in sport. Lecture Sociology in Sport

Is this due to the fact that coaching egos, salary, promotion, and/or keeping one’s job depend upon performance factors, i.e. athletic success versus club athletes achieving physical and technical skills for personal goals, or an active and healthy lifestyle? It reminds me of the Junior High school varsity sport scenario whereby a number of students tryout only to be cut because they are not good enough!

When I was coaching in Tempe, Arizona, the team consisted of 140 swimmers, 60 competed at the State level, 80 swimmers in the Recreational program, and 20 (females) participated for fitness only! We coached all groups by providing each swimmer the most suitable training to develop their skills based on personal interest (i.e., competition, recreation, fitness).

2018 Olympic Reflections

If you were told that a Scandinavian country with only five million people would be dominating the United States (population 323.1 million, 2016) and Canada (population 36.29 million, 2016) in an international sports competition what would be your first reaction? Norway (Norge) has a population of 5,258,317 (January 2017). Let’s compare the results by looking at the final medal standing at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Final Medal Count, February 25, 2018

  • Norway 39 Medals (14 Gold; 14 Silver; 11 Bronze)
  • Germany 31 Medals (14 Gold; 10 Silver; 7 Bronze)
  • Canada 29 Medals (11 Gold; 8 Silver; 10 Bronze)
  • USA 23 Medals (9 Gold; 8 Silver; 6 Bronze)
  • Netherlands 20 Medals (8 Gold; 6 Silver; 6 Bronze)

Norway’s Return to the Peak: Proud of their Winter Sports Heritage

The Norwegian approach is developing young athletes with success; although the focus has been more on Winter sports due to the country’s natural environment. The 1954 Kraus-Weber Fitness Test compared American and European children. The results demonstrated better fitness levels by European children. One has to admit that cultural influences may drive these results as European children walk, bike, and engage in sports such as soccer, (lower body and cardio activities), etc. while American children pursue mostly basketball, football, softball, swimming, tennis (upper body activities), etc. And let us not forget that North American children seldom walk or bike to school or hike in the mountains… Mom or school buses do the driving!

Lillehammer, Norway, 1994

Norwegians dominated decades of Olympic Games. After an embarrassing slump and the humbling events at the 1988 Winter Olympics Norwegians were stunned. For the first time since the Winter Games began in 1924, Norway won zero gold medals. While tabloid headlines screamed “disaster”, the more thoughtful newspapers pondered whether elite sports were still as important in a modern, egalitarian society as they were in the days when Norway’s Winter athletes were kicking the rest of the world’s collective behind. It seems the country’s sports leaders, with encouragement from the government, concluded the answer to that question was “Yes.”

A program called Olympiatoppen (loosely, “striving to reach the Olympic summit”) was established to improve Norway’s standing in world sports. It was created with financial backing and a centralized training system to make national sports programs successful.

Program director, Thor Ole Rimejorde, a career military officer, reviewed the results from Calgary 1988, and did see a golden future. “We won only five medals in 1988, but we had many young athletes in places four through 10. Ole Rimejorde, the Mastermind of Norwegian elite sports believed in “daring to do it differently.” He went so far as to fire many elite coaches because they were “stuck in the traditional framework.”

So, what gives at the 2018 Olympics? Here are statements by Tore Ovrebo, Norwegian Olympic Committee Director of Elite Sports during the Games:

…“We are not here to brag about our success and we still have a way to go to win the overall medal count – nor are we here to tell other nations how to go about their business – or impose Norwegian societal values, which we believe are tied to our success of winning medals at our Winter sport development…

Ironically, for a country that is collecting medals in just about every event, Ovrebo believes much of the success traces back to its ‘disregard for keeping the scoreboard’ with younger athletes. Unlike North America, where we keep score of everything all the time, Norway puts kids into sports but does not let them keep score until age 13. The idea is to make sports part of their social development so that motivation to stay involved is to have FUN with friends rather than winning. Eventually, the Norwegians introduce competition, and with the most advanced sports science techniques they develop and ‘pump out’ their medal winners. According to Ovebro, the idea is not to have the highest-ranked 10-year old athletes in the world but rather the most mature adult competitors.

…“A huge amount of kids are doing sports, so we have a very broad recruiting base, and our top sports programs, and our kids are very closely connected to our system. They can compete, but we don’t rank them as #1, #2, or #3 before they’re in their 13th year. We think it’s better to be a child in this way because then they can concentrate on having Fun, be with their friends, and develop. We think the biggest motivation for kids to do sports is doing them with their friends, and have Fun while doing it, and we want to keep that feeling throughout their whole career.” Fun remains a key of the Norwegian experience even when they grow up, which is important since it is not a very competitive society to begin with.”

In other words, Norway doesn’t look at sports as an avenue to fame and fortune, nor is it an escape from their troubles – although Norwegians do not have many troubles given their universal health care, free college education, and high employment rates. They have quite a high level of life quality for a high percentage of the population, and that puts them in a position where they can actually choose sports as a kind of self-realization and development arena. They are not struggling for their lives, so they are quite free, quite educated, and have a good health state. That means many of the youth are actually in a position where they can choose sports, according to Ovebro.

In addition, competing athletes remain ‘real friends for life.’ Norway also encourages sport coaches to talk to each other and learn from each other. However, Norway wants to do better in summer sports since lots of kids participate but the funding so far has been focused on winter sports, and Norway sends its’ best athletes.

USA versus Norway

Skating, skiing, and curling are not taught in public schools in US and Canada, nor in collegiate varsity sports or professional leagues (though some universities have varsity skiing). Most talented athletes follow the money such as basketball, baseball, football, golf, and tennis, which are performed at all age levels, and compensated at the professional stage with lucrative earnings. Buying ski equipment and having access to slopes tend to attract a wealthier demographic in the USA. According to STATISA, less than ten million people skied or snowboarded whereas Norway is a country with endless ski locations and huge media coverage of Winter events.

Is it Time to Quit Comparing Winter Olympic Success to Summer Olympics?

The obsession with medal counts undercuts the achievements of many other promising Olympians. Most Americans have run, swam, play volleyball and basketball so naturally there will be a larger pool of athletes to draw from. There is honour in representing the country overseas, but is it necessary to reduce success to medal counts? Huge kudos to Norway for the spectacular results with a relatively tiny population, which has prioritized Winter sports and become an amazing overachieving nation. 

If our media keep emphasizing the Winter Olympics as a test of American and Canadian pride and dominance, a strategy needs to be implemented to increase funding for Winter sports with more monetary inducement. Otherwise, we should just enjoy the performances of our athletes and de-emphasize winning and losing.


Baker, J., CôtéJ., & Abernathy, B. (2003). Sport-specific training, deliberate practice and the development of expertise in team ball sports. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 12-25.

Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-term athlete development. A guide to developing a philosophy of sport for life; training frameworks, a consistently successful organization. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Bompa, T. (1995). From childhood to champion athlete. Toronto, ON: Veritas.

Coakley, J. (2000). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (6th ed.) Toronto, ON: Times Mirror/Mosby.

Hill, G. (2009). Sport specialization: Causes and concerns. [PowerPoint slides]. Presented at the Long-term Athlete Development Conference of the Utah Athletic Foundation. Salt Lake City, UT.

Sanderson, L. (1989). Growth and development considerations for design of training plans for young athletes.Sports, 10(2).

Weineck, J. (2010). Optimales Training. Leistungsphysiologische Trainingslehre unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Kinder und Jugendtrainings [Optimal training. Physiological performance within training theory with special consideration consideration for children and youth training]. Balingen, Germany: Spitta Verlag.


Dr. Jürgen Weineck, PhD, Dr. Med., Emeritus. Sport Institute for Sport Science and Sport. University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>