Don’t Specialize Too Early (2022) Güllich


World-Class Athletes started later and played more sports than national counterparts.


“Senior world-class performers engaged in more coach-led practice in sports other than their main sport during childhood/adolescence and, relatedly, began playing their main sport later, accumulated less main-sport practice, and reached performance milestones at a slower rate than national-class performers.”

Güllich, A., Macnamara, B. N., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2022). What Makes a Champion? Early Multidisciplinary Practice, Not Early Specialization, Predicts World-Class Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(1), 6–29. 

Research Story

Three researchers from Germany, Ohio, and Michigan did a meta-analysis of 51 studies of 6,096 athletes including 772 world-class top performers. They wanted to find out how participation in other sports, including playing sports just for fun with friends, influenced making it to the top of their field.

They included any studies that measured starting age, age to reach milestones in their main sport, how much main-sport and/or other-sport practice they had, as well as youth-led play and pick-up games. They grouped athletes into junior and senior categories according the divisions of the sport they played. 

Starting age. For junior athletes, starting early had higher performance levels, but for senior athletes it was the opposite; high performers started later. Also, world-class athletes started later than national level athletes.

Age to reach Milestones. Again the results were opposite for junior and senior athletes. Junior world-class athletes reached milestones earlier than national athletes in their sport. Senior world-class athletes reached early miestones later than their national counterparts.

Main Sport Coach-Led Practice. Athletes reached higher levels the more they practiced. Main sport practice and how early they started was more important for younger athletes. World-class junior athletes had more practice than national athletes. The higher you go in competition levels, the more practice senior athletes had, until you reach world-class level where athletes had less main-sport practice than at the national level.

Main-Sport Play. Playing your sport for fun had no impact at any level. 

Other Sports Coach-Led Practice. Junior athletes playing other sports were at lower levels, where Senior athletes were at higher levels. Senior world-class athletes had more other-sports practice time than national ones.

Other Sports Play. Playing other sports for fun had little impact at any level.

Multisport practice separated the world-class athletes from national ones. They played sports other than their main sport more, began playing their main sport later, and accumulated less main-sport practice. Why might multisport practice differentiate world-class performers? It may be less burnout or overuse injuries, the athlete was able to select a sport the excelled at or liked, or multiple sports and coaches may teach a youth a wider variety of skills including how to work with different coaching styles.

So What – Application

It seems better to diversify than to specialize early, but that depends on if you want to be a world-class athlete.

This could, as parents, persuade us to let our kids try multiple sports rather than pinning them to a single sport. The same may be true for other ventures outside athletics, which could help parents relax a little about the pressure to start a kid early in a sport or other venture.

I think it’s interesting they included a statement about Nobel Laureates being less likely to have won a scholarship as a student, took longer to earn full professorships and achieved the nobel prize later compared with winners at the national level.