THE European Athletics Championships, which concluded in Berlin last weekend, was remarkable for a number of reasons. Primarily, it proved beyond all reasonable doubt that athletics can still be one of the greatest spectator sports on earth.
From a British perspective, it was Dina Asher-Smith’s triple gold that grabbed the headlines but even more astonishing were the exploits of Jakob Ingebrigtsen. The 17-year-old Norwegian became the first man ever to do the 1500m-5000m double at the European Championships and his story is remarkable not only because of the precocious age at which he has won this brace of titles but also because of his back story.
he story of the Ingebrigtsen family has been repeated tirelessly this week; his two older brothers are also world-class middle distance runners who are previous European champions and he has a younger sister who is showing the kind of talent that suggests that, in time, she will also emerge onto the world scene.
Ingebrigtsen followed in his two elder brothers footsteps by becoming European 1500m champion last week in a thrilling run before following that with his 5000m run, in which he dominated from three laps out and as a result, produced a comfortable victory. For three brothers – who are all coached by their father – to all make it to this level is astonishing but for Ingebrigtsen to have scaled these heights at quite such a precocious age is breath-taking.
When asked during the European Championships how he has managed to reach this level quite so early, he replied: “I’ve been a professional runner since I was eight, nine, ten years old. I’ve been training, dedicated and following a good structure – the same as my brothers – from an early age.”
Ingebrigtsen’s comments are in-keeping with a prevailing feeling in some quarters that early specialisation is the way to go when it comes to producing elite athletes. Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours theory, which states that 10,000 hours of practice are needed in order to master a skill, is often cited in the push for kids to focus on one specific sport from an increasingly early age.
And certainly Ingebrigtsen’s success, coupled with the success of the likes of early specialisers such as the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and Tiger Woods, back up the theory that starting early is the path to follow.
However, this could not be further from the truth. Yes, there will always be exceptions and it is easy to see why Ingebrigtsen’s comments about having trained like a professional athlete since the age of 8 would give rise to the thinking that the earlier a kid starts, the better.
Numerous studies show that despite the odd exception who does come through having focused on a single sport at a young age, in fact, early specialisation is hugely detrimental to a young athlete.
A University of Wisconsin study found that those who focus on one single sport in childhood double their chances of picking up a serious injury compared to those taking part in a number of different sports.
Being involved in a range of sports works wonders for developing a kid’s physical literacy, as well as decreasing the risk of picking up an overuse injury before the body is strong enough to cope with repetitive movements.
In the same vein, for a kid to devote themselves to one single sport before they even become a teenager has been shown to increase the risk of burnout as well as physiological problems which, more often than not, encourages that individual to drop out of the sport entirely.
It cannot be forgotten that only a tiny percentage of the population become Olympians, even fewer then go on to pick up silverware. Over 99 percent of children playing sports will not become world-class athletes and so to centre their young lives around doing so is foolish in the extreme.
Ingebrigtsen is a remarkable individual, but he most certainly does not provide a blue-print for what must be followed. Instead, if a kid begins their sporting journey doing a number of disciplines, and doing it for fun, they are far more likely to make it to the top than if they are treated like a professional athlete while still at primary school.