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Youth Sports Specialization Can Be Detrimental To Future Success

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Youth sports are an important part of a child’s physical and emotional development. Participation in youth sports has many positive benefits to a child’s growth. It encourages physical exertion, which in turn decreases the risk for obesity and can have a positive effect on a child’s emotional well-being. It helps develop social dexterity and promotes leadership skills. Most importantly, sports are FUN!
 
However, there has been an increasing focus on early sports specialization. Many children are now concentrating on only one sport at the exclusion of others prior to the age of 12. Sports specialization is defined as engaging in a sport for at least 8 months per year at the exclusion of other sports. There are many reasons for this increase in sports specialization including a perception that early specialization increases the time spent in intensive training for that sport. Many believe that this increased training strengthens the chances of later success including the potential for college scholarships and opportunities to play at the professional level. There is also a positive feedback loop where increased specialization leads to earlier acceptance on an elite team leading to decreased availability for other sports and therefore increasing the isolation of one sport.

This aggressive emphasis on one sport is further magnified by parental and a child’s own expectations. Interestingly, these goals may not always correlate, and this can lead to considerable familial discord. Parents and coaches are often the driving force towards single sport intensive training, especially in swimming and gymnastics. Additionally, there is a hyper-competitiveness that exists among peers and often significant pressure from coaches.

Despite the impression that early sports specialization leads to improved athletic ability, it can also have many harms including overuse injuries, insufficient sleep, disordered eating, and psychological burnout. Athletes with high specialization are nearly twice as likely to sustain an overuse injury as compared to athletes with low or even moderate specialization.1 This may be due to the fact that more specialized athletes often have a higher volume of vigorous activity over a week as compared to those athletes that diversify.2
 
Furthermore, studies of professional and collegiate athletes have demonstrated that elite athletes typically do not specialize until later in adolescence and participate in a variety of sports as compared to non-elite athletes.3–6 Subsequently, early sports specialization has been demonstrated to lead to less athletic activity in college.7
 
In order to keep our kids safe, it is important to educate parents, athletes and coaches on the benefits of sports variation and manage their overall sports volume. It is important to be aware and highlight that parental and athlete expectations may differ. For example, one third of NCAA athletes wished they had participated in more varied sports growing up and many NCAA athletes felt they played in too many contests as adolescents.8 Therefore, it is important to talk to your child about WHY they are participating in the sport and understand what THEY want to get out of the experience.

Download and share this infographic on Fact and Fiction about Youth Sports Specialization!

Written by Kali Tileston, MD; Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine. Special thanks to Aristides I. Cruz, Jr. and R. Justin Mistovich for their contributions.
 
  1. Bell DR, Post EG, Biese K, Bay C, Valovich McLeod T. Sport Specialization and Risk of Overuse Injuries: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2018-0657
  2. Field AE, Tepolt FA, Yang DS, Kocher MS. Injury Risk Associated With Sports Specialization and Activity Volume in Youth. Orthop J Sports Med. 2019;7(9):2325967119870124. doi:10.1177/2325967119870124
  3. Wilhelm A, Choi C, Deitch J. Early Sport Specialization: Effectiveness and Risk of Injury in Professional Baseball Players. Orthop J Sports Med. 2017;5(9):2325967117728922. doi:10.1177/2325967117728922
  4. Bridge MW, Toms MR. The specialising or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK. J Sports Sci. 2013;31(1):87-96. doi:10.1080/02640414.2012.721560
  5. Post EG, Thein-Nissenbaum JM, Stiffler MR, et al. High School Sport Specialization Patterns of Current Division I Athletes. Sports Health. 2017;9(2):148-153. doi:10.1177/1941738116675455
  6. Moesch K, Elbe A-M, Hauge M-LT, Wikman JM. Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011;21(6):e282-290. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01280.x
  7. Swindell HW, Marcille ML, Trofa DP, et al. An Analysis of Sports Specialization in NCAA Division I Collegiate Athletics. Orthop J Sports Med. 2019;7(1):2325967118821179. doi:10.1177/2325967118821179
  8. Buckley PS, Bishop M, Kane P, et al. Early Single-Sport Specialization: A Survey of 3090 High School, Collegiate, and Professional Athletes. Orthop J Sports Med. 2017;5(7):2325967117703944. doi:10.1177/2325967117703944