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Multilateral development versus specialization

Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff

Multilateral Development

Support for the concept of multilateral development is found in most areas of education and human endeavors. In athletics, multilateral development, or overall physical development, is a necessity (9, 25, 84). The use of a multilateral development plan is extremely important during the early stages of an athlete’s development (84). Multilateral development during the athlete’s formative years lays the groundwork for later periods of training when specialization becomes a greater focus of the training plan. If properly implemented, the multilateral training phase will allow the athlete to develop the physiological and psychological basis needed to maximize performance later in his career (84).

The temptation to deviate from a multilateral development plan and begin specialized training too soon can be very great, especially when a young athlete demonstrates rapid development in a sporting activity. In such cases, it is paramount that the instructor, coach, or parent resist this temptation, because it has been well documented that a broad multilateral base of physical development is necessary to prepare the athlete for more specialized training later in her development (9, 25, 84). If training is sequenced appropriately and begins with a strong foundation of multilateral training early in the athlete’s development, the athlete will be able to achieve much higher levels of physical preparation and technical mastery and ultimately will achieve higher levels of performance.



A sequential approach to an athlete’s development, progressing from multilateral to specialized training as the athlete matures, appears to be a prerequisite for maximizing sporting performance (25, 79, 84). Figure 2.1 illustrates a conceptual model for a long-term sequential approach to training.

The base of the pyramid in figure 2.1 represents a period of multilateral development, which is the foundation of the training program. This part of the training program includes multifaceted motor development, multisport skills, and some sport-specific skills. The variety of exercise that the athlete undertakes during this time allows for full development of the child’s physiological systems. For example, in this phase of training the neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and energy systems are activated in various ways to allow for balanced development. When the athlete’s development reaches an acceptable level, especially her physical development, she will progress to the second phase of development, which is marked by a greater degree of specialization.

The multilateral phase of training does not exclude specificity in the training process. On the contrary, training specificity is present in all stages of a training program but in varying proportions, as can be seen in figure 2.2. Figure 2.2 shows that during the multilateral phase of training, the percentage of specialized training is very small. As the athlete matures, the degree of specialization increases. It is believed that the multilateral base serves as a foundation for future development and helps the athlete avoid overuse injuries and staleness in training (84).


Support for the benefits of multilateral development can be seen in three longitudinal studies performed in three countries (18, 22, 46). In a 14-year study in the former East Germany (46), a large number of 9- to 12-year-olds were placed into two groups. The first group trained in a manner similar to the approach taken in North America, focusing on early specialization in a given sport. These athletes used exercises and training methods that were specific to a particular sport. The second group followed a generalized program that focused on multilateral development. This group participated in a variety of sports, learned a variety of skills, and undertook overall physical training in addition to sport-specific skills and physical training. The results of this investigation (see Comparison Between Early Specialization and Multilateral Development, p. 34) support the contention that a strong foundation, which is established by using a multilateral approach, leads to greater athletic success.


Russian sources (22) often refer to a survey that resulted in similar findings. This longitudinal study concluded that specialization should not start in most sports before the age of 15. Some of the major findings of this study are as follows:

* Most of the best Russian athletes had a strong multilateral foundation.
* Most athletes started training at 7 or 8 years of age. During the first few years, all athletes participated in various sports, such as soccer, cross-country skiing, running, skating, swimming, and cycling. From 10 to 13, the children also participated in team sports, gymnastics, rowing, and track and field.
* Specialized programs started at ages 15 to 17, without neglecting earlier sports and activities. Best performances were achieved after 5 to 8 years in the specialized sports.
* Athletes who specialized at a much earlier age achieved their best performances at a junior age level (<18 years). These performances were never duplicated when they became seniors (>18 years). Many retired before reaching senior levels. Only a minority of the athletes who specialized at a young age were able to improve performance at senior level.
* Many top-class athletes started to train in an organized environment at the junior level (14-18 years of age). They had never been junior champions or held national records, but at the senior age many of them achieved national- and international-class performances.
* Most athletes considered their success attributable to the multilateral foundation built during childhood and junior age.

The third study, conducted by Carlson (18), analyzed the training background and development patterns of elite Swedish tennis players who were very successful in international competition. The subjects were divided into a study group that consisted of elite adult tennis players and a control group that was matched by age, gender, and junior rankings. The most relevant findings are shown in the summary of research on page 35. Both groups of players were equal in skills up to the age group of 12 to 14; the difference in skills between the two groups occurred after this age. Additional findings in the control group were that skill development was fast during early adolescence and these players participated in an atmosphere of high demand for success. Interestingly, the control group players specialized at age 11, whereas the study group did not begin to specialize until the age of 14. In fact, the study group participated in a wide variety of sporting activities during early adolescence, whereas the control group performed specialized, professional-like training. Although the control group demonstrated significantly greater performances as juniors, the study group demonstrated their highest levels of performance as senior athletes. The work of Carlson (18) supports the importance of a multilateral training approach that is marked by all-around sport engagement and less professional-type training during early childhood and adolescence.

The coach should consider multilateral training in the early stages of an athlete’s development as the foundation for future specialization and athletic mastery (58). Multilateral training should be used mostly when training children and juniors (9, 58). In these stages of athlete development it is essential that a strong vocabulary of physical and psychological attributes be developed. Physical skill sets that are essential during this phase of training include natural movements like running, jumping, climbing, and throwing (58, 79). Additionally, the development of speed, agility, coordination, flexibility, and overall general fitness is important at this phase of development. These training goals are best accomplished through diverse activities that allow for the development of several biomotor abilities. In this process, the young athlete will be taught a diverse group of exercise techniques, which include some of the technical aspects of the selected sport. All of these skill sets will be used as the athlete becomes more developed and multilateral training becomes less of a focus.

All athletes should participate in multilateral training to some degree throughout their careers (figure 2.2). The greatest amount of multilateral training occurs during the early stages of development, and less focus on this type of training occurs as the athlete progresses. Multilateral development is essential to optimize the effects of specialized training later in the athlete’s career.


This is an excerpt from Periodization, Fifth Edition.


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