Sports Specialization and the 10,000 Hour Rule

A Brief Look at Sports Specialization and the 10,000 Hour Rule – Jace Peters, DC

Malcom Gladwell popularized the 10,000 rule initially proposed by Anders Ericsson in his book Outliers and the cultural phenomenon it created might partly explain the boom in youth sports specialization.  If you are unfamiliar with the 10,000 hour rule it basically says:

It takes roughly ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field.

It is no secret that there has been an explosion in youth sports participation over the last 20 years and a fundamental shift away from what was once a youth-driven recreational activity to parent and coach-driven skill development with a focus on single sport accomplishment. The sporting schedules of today’s kids with practices and games is light years different from even that of their own parents. The switch to earlier specialization is likely driven not only by the idea of the 10,000 hour rule but also by society’s idealization of professional athletes and the financial rewards that come with it.  Sports specialization is defined as:

Year-round training (greater than 8 months per year), choosing a single main sport, and/or quitting all other sports to focus on one sport. 1,2

The 10,000 rule was initially proposed by Professor of Psychology, Anders Ericsson when studying elite violinists and grand-master chess champions but has since been wrongly extrapolated to different arenas. Ericsson has since come out and said there is no magic number for greatness and 10,000 hours appeared to be the average time elites spent practicing in music and chess to the best of their recollection based on surveys.  Gladwell has also since commented that there is no proof the 10,000 rule applies to sports.

Highly specialized athletes had 2.25 (range, 1.27-3.99) greater odds of having sustained a serious overuse injury than an unspecialized young athlete, even when accounting for hours per week of sports exposure and age. 2

Based on the previous discussion, what is the alternative to early sports specialization? First and foremost the youth athlete, parents, and coaches need to recognize that early specialization is not the best way.  Parents and coaches should also be open to and encourage early diversification that involves the participation in a variety of sports during the growing years to develop diverse motor skill development as well as expose the child to opportunities they enjoy. Parents and coaches can also provide opportunities for children to participate in free, unstructured play to help limit the pressure to perform. A good rule of thumb is to limit organized sports activity to less than 16 hours per week or hours per week of the athlete’s age to help decrease risk for injury and psychological burnout. 2 


1. Myer et al. Sports Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health. Vol 7;5. Sep/Oct 2015

2. Myer et al. Sports Specialization, Part II:  Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athlete. Sports Health. Vol 8;1. Jan/Feb 2016

3. Csikszentmihalyi M, Rathunde KR, Whalen S. Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure. 1st ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 1997.

4. Wall M, Côté J. Developmental activities that lead to dropout and investment in sport. Phys Educ Sport Pedagogy. 2007;12:77-87

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