A retrospective exploration of sport specialization in para sport


Early sport specialization is on the rise among youth despite growing evidence surrounding potential physiological and psychosocial harms including injury, burnout, and excessive psychological stress. Sport specialization is typically described as when an athlete focuses on a single sport at the exclusion of others and engages in increased training in pursuit of elite levels of performance. To date, sport specialization has primarily been studied among able-bodied athletes, while much less is known about the specialization experiences of athletes in Para sport. The purpose of this study was to better understand the developmental experiences of elite athletes with a physical disability as they specialized in Para sport. Ten national or international level Canadian Para athletes took part in the study. Participants engaged in semi-structured interviews to better understand their developmental experiences and the nature of the specialization process in their development. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and then analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis. Participants highlighted that their specialization often felt forced and fast-tracked due to limited sport opportunities. Furthermore, several participants discussed how they essentially specialized in their sport by default, as the nature of their impairment served as a barrier to multi-sport engagement. Moreover, unlike able-bodied sport, the heterogeneity of the developmental trajectories of Para athletes made it challenging to identify typical ages or stages in which specialization can or should take place. This study reinforces existing literature on the experiences and barriers of Para athletes, while offering valuable insight regarding the specialization process in Para sport.