Joseph Baker, Jean Cote, and Bruce Abernathy

The Big Idea

When asked about his early years, hockey great Wayne Gretzky, said: “I played everything.  I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and field.  I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.”

This paper is one of the early research warning signs that Gretzky may have been right about the value of playing multiple sports when young.  Whatever it was that Gretzky learned early on certainly didn’t compromise his hockey play; it even may have been in part responsible for it.  According to the results of this research study, we need to re-think the popular practice of early specialisation in youth sports.    


  • It is customary now that achieving expert level play in most sports requires around 10 years of practice.
  • And it is argued that the practice needs to be deliberate from the get-go.
  • Deliberate practice in youth sport requires nearly year-round commitment, and organised and structured practice and training.
  • Fear of falling behind is what parents worry about if their child doesn’t specialise early, the earlier the better—better to get started on the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert athlete.
  • But early specialisation may not be the best approach to helping youngsters develop into expert performers.
  • Instead, it seems that early diversification can actually aid the young athletes learn patterns of decision-making that are transferrable to a specific sport once the adolescent begins to specialise in one sport.
  • The athletes in this in-depth interview study of team ball sport experts did reinforce the 10-year approximation for any athletes on their way expert status.
  • But the lesson is that it may be entirely possible for a young athlete to benefit positively from useful practice spent in whatever-the-sport in the early years without early sport specialisation in a single sport.

The Research

Since the 1970s it has become almost a truism in the research literature that achieving expert level performances takes a minimum of 10 years of preparation.  This “10-year rule” applies to such domains as music, math—and sports.

But it isn’t any old preparation.  In the last couple of decades the literature gets more specific.  The rule means 10 years of practice, minimum.  But not just any practice.  Expert performance is said to require a minimum of 10 years of deliberate practice.  “Deliberate” is defined this way: daily and work-like; requiring effort and focus; does not lead to social or financial reward; and frequently not enjoyable.  

A suggested sequence of player development over time

This research study looks at application of deliberate practice in team sport settings; in particular, in field hockey, netball, and basketball.  But instead of simply using the existing framework of deliberate practice over time, these researchers broaden the concept of deliberation, especially in the younger years of youth development.  They suggest the concepts of free playdeliberate playstructured practice, and deliberate practice as a more truthful account of the stages of development of expert performers over time.

What makes this structure useful is to be able to test the hypothesis that expertise in sport does not necessarily mean engaging in only one type of activity for 10 and more years.  These researchers wanted to better understand the possible contributions to developing expertise by way of a variety of early practice and experience coming from other sports and related activities.

Decision-making is a key characteristic underlying all team ball sports.  These researchers designed a study using decision-making abilities of expert and non-expert athletes’ career histories of both sport-specific and non-sport-specific practice.  The intent was to: 1) identify commonalities in the backgrounds of expert decision-makers that might explain their uncanny level of expertise; and 2) determine the extent to which expert athletes’ participation in other sports was a distinguishing attribute of their expertise.

The procedures 

Two groups of athletes participated in the study.  Fifteen expert athletes were invited from Australian select national teams:  women’s netball (3), men’s basketball (4), men’s field hockey (4), and women’s field hockey (4).  Thirteen athletes (participating for 10 years at the state or provincial levels) composed the non-expert group.

Each athlete completed a structured, one-on-one, two-to-three-hour interview.  The idea was to collect a detailed retrospective, longitudinal account of each athlete’s participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities.  The athletes were also asked to estimate the number of hours per week they participated in sports and other activities.


The findings in this study are interesting.  First of all, they found that the 10-year rule (from Simon and Chase, 1973) remains a good measure of the minimal practice needed for developing expertise in team sports.

Secondly, they also found that the number of accumulated hours of sport-specific practice is also still an important indicator of expertise in sport decision-making—roughly 10,000 hours.

Third, and a unique finding in this study, was the variable range of accumulated hours between and within sports reported by the expert athletes.  This suggests there are other non-sport factors in addition to the total number of hours in sport-specific practice that are influencing decision-making expertise.

Fourth, it was also shown that expert athletes also participate in other sports early on.  That expert athletes are involved in other sport activities prior to having become a sport-specific expert suggests an alternative model to early specialisation in sport-specific deliberate practice activities.  In other words, participation in othersports could be a functional element in achieving sport-specific excellence.  Sport expertise in a team sport may not require early exclusivity of deliberate practice.  Crossover sport activities may have beneficial outcomes for developing the generic skills necessary to sport-specific expertise (such as pattern recognition, physical ability, hand-eye coordination, or cardio).

Practical lessons

It appears that transfer of learning from non-specific sport participation to benefit sport-specific expert performance is a significant finding.  The authors believe that these kinds of learning experiences happen mostly in cognitive/perceptual and physiological adaptations than in specific skill acquisition.  And that these transfers are more likely to be earlier than later in an athlete’s career.

Without question, the most significant lesson in this study is that early specialisation may not be a necessary requirement for developing expert levels of decision-making in team sports.  This study is consistent with some previous research suggesting that all-around sport engagement before adolescence is a positive attribute of honing decision-making skills.

So it may be entirely possible for a young athlete to benefit from useful practice in whatever the sport without early sport specialisation in a single sport.  In fact, in this study until the age of specialisation the experts actually participated in as many or more activities in additional to their primary sport than did the non-experts.

In the end, the authors make a strong plea for re-consideration of what it takes to become an expert level athlete.   Relentless, deliberate practice in a single team sport at an early age may not be the be-all-and-end-all that it is often considered to be.  Just ask Wayne Gretzky.

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