Sports specialization: good or bad for kids?

The landscape of youth sports has changed tremendously in the past two decades. Children today are opting to specialize in a sport at an earlier age – forgoing the chance to play multiple sports throughout the year in order to focus on one. Webb Smith, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Le Bonheur, weighs in on this phenomenon – what are the risks of sports specialization and why is it a “thing” these days?

sportsspecializationWhat motivates early sports specialization?

Three main reasons motivate parents to allow their child to pick one sport at an early age, including:

  1. Parents are looking for an edge. In our increasingly winner-take-all society, parents, coaches and kids appear to be searching desperately for an edge. Sports leagues and varsity teams are becoming more and more competitive. And with the costs of college these days, many parents are shooting for college athletic scholarships.
  2. Parents believe more is better. Many parents buy into the idea that their child will be unable to be successful or even make a high school or college team without specializing, playing on a select team, playing year round, and attending special sports camps in the summer.
  3. Parents think it’s a matter of competitive survival. Parents these days think they have no choice. Sports are like academics, they think: a child who falls behind in the early days will never catch up.

Does specialization hurt young athletes?

Early specialization is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes who specialize in a sport are 70 to 93 percent more likely to be injured than kids who play multiple sports. Female adolescents who specialize in a sport are at an increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders, which can lead to ACL tears.

Long-term effects of early sports specialization?A study of more than 1,220 children found those who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at early age tend to experience burnout and are often the first to quit.

Jayanthi N, et al. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach; Mostafavifar AM, et al. Br J Sports Med. 2013; Sagas M. Aspen Institute Sports & Society. 2013; DiFiori JP et al. Clin J Sport Med 2014; Bergeron MF, et al. Br J Sports Med 2015; Smucny M, Parikh SN, Pandya NK. Orthopedic Clinics of North America. 2015

But does specialization produce better athletes?

Not necessarily. Research shows the early participation in multiple sports leaders to better overall motor and athletic development, including:

  • Increased ability to transfer sports skills to other sports
  • Better decision making and pattern recognition
  • Increased motivation
  • Increased confidence

When looking at college athletes, most come from a multisport background. In fact, 88 percent of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child (DiFiori JP et al. Clin J Sport Med 2014). The majority of picks in the NFL (224 of 256) participated in more than one sport in high school.

What are the recommendations for young athletes?

Top youth sports researchers suggest that:

  • Young athletes should not participate year round in a single sport
  • Sports whose competitors peak after age 20 need to accumulate around 10,000 hours of general sports participation – no more than half of that needs to be deliberate practice in their chosen sport

Here’s a breakdown by age for athletes trying to achieve “elite” status:

  • Younger than age 12: 80 percent of time should be spent in sports other than the chosen sport
  • Ages 13-15: time should be split 50/50 between the chosen sport and other athletic pursuits
  • Ages 16 and older: even when specialization becomes important, 20 percent of training time should be spent in other sports or athletic pursuits