Youth Sport Specialization: How early is too early to specialize?
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December 3, 2018
By Elizabeth L. Augustine, MS, LAT, ATC
We live in a fast paced, high pressure kind of world. Our culture reinforces the need to be the best, the fastest and the champion. Sports stars are a cultural phenomenon. This cultural trend has passed down to our youth, and specifically in youth sports, where many children are sport specializing at an early age. As healthcare professionals, we must consider whether youth sports specialization is a good idea for the future of our youth in sports.
There are many obvious benefits of youth sports and being active. Children have fun and can learn how to be leaders. They move their bodies and are physically active. Children learn teamwork skills and how to socialize; they gain self-esteem.¹ Kids who are active are more likely to be healthier, attend college, be active in their future lives and be more successful in work life.² It seems there are many positives for youth to participate in sports.
There has been a cultural shift in how our youth play. In the past, play was considered “free,” where the child directed and decided what was to be done. The youth of today play differently than they once did. Play is much more structured, which is very different from even a few generations ago. The goal of play in the past was fun, socialization, and developing lifelong love of activity or sport.¹ Children were also developing critical developmental motor skills during this free play in their childhood. Now, the goal is focused on skill development and very skill focused drills and practices.
Early sports specialization is defined as “intensive yearlong training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports”.ᵌ The goals are to create opportunities to develop skills in one specific sport, very deliberate practice focusing on improving performance and enhancing the chances of playing at the elite level. Research by Jayanthi et alshows that this specialization is dangerous for the youth. One study showed that a youth athlete who trains year-round (>8 months), chooses one main sport, and quits all other sports are at a high risk for not only injury, but also overuse injury.⁴ Specialization can cause young athletes to not develop important neuromuscular skills and can also not allow enough rest for specific body regions. The chance for overuse injuries is very high with athletes who specialize too early. Also, specialized athletes can also be more prone to burnout, have anxiety or depression.¹
A perception exists among care-givers that if their child specializes early, it will ensure the child willhave sports success in the future. With the exception of gymnastics and figure skating, the odds of excelling at the elite level do not seem to increase by early specialization, according to a few recent studies.⁵ Another study of elite and near elite athletes shows that those elite athletes specialized at a later age and not childhood.²It should also be noted that research has shown that some sports, such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating are recommended to start specializing in early adolescence (12-14 years), while team sports and tennis and golf are recommended to begin specializing in middle adolescence (15-17 years). Finally, endurance sports such as track and distance events can begin specializing in late adolescence (18-20 years).
As an AT, these recommendations can be used to educate care-givers and coaches of young athletes. It is recommended that the following be encouraged in youth athletes:
1. Youth should be given chances for free, unstructured play. Let them run and jump; let them play basketball at the park with their friends; let them climb a tree.
2. Care-givers and educators should create opportunities for free, unstructured play during the growing years, which could potentially reduce injuries in adolescence. Care-givers should encourage their young athlete to share with them when they have pain with activity or sports as well.
3. Youth should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports and activities.¹′⁴ Diversification is preferred over specialization.ᵌ
- Joel S. Brenner.Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3) :e20162148. https://cdn4.sportngin.com/attachments/document/0109/6021/Sports_Specialization-American_Pediatric.full.pdf.Assessed on November 20, 2018.
- Perkins DL, Jacobs JJ, Barber BL, et al. Childhood and adolescent sports participation as predictors of participation in sports and physical fitness activities during young adulthood. Youth Soc 2004;35:495–520.
- Myer, GD, Jayanthi, N, DiFiori, JP, et al. Sport specialization, part I: does early specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes? Sports Health; 2015; 7(1): 437-442.
- Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, Labella C.Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations.Sports Health. 2013 May; 5(3):251-7.
- Myer, GD, Jayanthi, N, DiFiori, JP, et al. Sports specialization, part II: alternative solutions to early sport specialization in youth athletes. Sports Health; 2016; 8(1): 65-73.
About the Author
Elizabeth L. Augustine, MS, LAT, ATC has been an Athletic Trainer since 2006 and lives in Claypool, Indiana. She graduated from Manchester College with degrees in Athletic Training and Exercise Science and a minor in Spanish in 2006. She received her Master’s in Organizational Leadership and Supervision for Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne in 2009. She currently works as an Athletic Trainer for a Sports Medicine doctor in Warsaw, Indiana. Her athletic training interests include concussions, creating policies and procedures, and injury rehabilitation. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, doing puzzles, and spending time with her husband and two young daughters.