Early Specialization: Can the rewards outweigh the risks?
by Julie Ferrell-Olson
Dance culture carries a long held belief on singular training, and only focusing on dance. This belief is so strong, that students often believe they cannot reach a professional level if they did not start extremely young.
Early specialization is when an adolescent takes a single approach and focused training into a sport or activity with the goal of reaching an expert level to work professionally. That training consists of hours of deliberate practice, meaning the training is intense and not always enjoyable. For the sake of this article, we’re going to define “early” as pre-puberty when the dancer is not done growing. This is seen in the dance world when a dancer goes to a very specific training school at a young age or chooses dance as their only activity; it is very common for professional ballet companies to have accompanying, intensive schools.
There is strong evidence in support of early specialization leading to expertise. In looking at violinists, musicians that started around the age of five were more likely to attain expertise than musicians that started later in life. This is most likely because the ones that started younger already had more hours of deliberate practice than those that started later. There are several examples of early specialization being successful in sports when you look at athletes such as Tiger Woods and Michelle Kwan.
In contrast, early specialization can be detrimental to a child’s social development, skeletal growth, and mental wellbeing. Too much time spent in training can lead to social isolation if a student is not spending time in an unstructured format with peers their age, and intensive training with in adequate recovery time can lead to burnout. Additionally, focusing on one activity alone on the immature body can lead to increased short- and long-term injury-risk in the joints, as the child will only be focusing on the movement necessary for that activity instead of generalized fitness.
With all of this in mind, we have to consider the current state of performing artists. Dancers, gymnasts, and figure skaters have relatively short and early careers—in 2004, the average retirement age for a select group of elite dancers was just under 34. Looking at the hours of deliberate practice required to reach expert levels, early specialization might make sense… but we also have to consider how few athletes actually do make it to the professional level.
It is still possible to reach expert levels without early specialization. Studies in favor of early diversification in movement found that involvement in a variety of sports and generalized physical activity that still complemented their primary activity helped athletes attain expertise. Additionally, one study found that athletes that specialized early actually had shorter professional careers than those that did not.
There is no one correct answer in the early specialization debate yet, as research is still ongoing in child development. I think it’s important to remember that kids first and foremost need to be kids, and have the freedom to explore and play and try anything, even if it’s outside the dance studio.