The Downfalls of Early Sports Specialization

By Abby Halpin, DPT ACSM

What does it take to be the best? There is plenty of evidence showing that early specialization in an activity can result in higher levels of performance. The most commonly touted figures are that committing to high level of practice for 10 years or practicing mindfully for more than 10,000 hours leads to greater task-specific knowledge, greater interpretation of information and recognition of structured patterns of play, more rapid and appropriate decision making, and more (1).

The trend of young athletes training intensely year-round in one sport with the exclusion of other sports is increasing. A study of junior tennis players in the US Tennis Association found that 70% of players began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old (2). With sports specialization trending upward, it is important to discuss it’s possible downfalls. As a physical therapist, the first thing that comes to mind is increased risk of injury. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes ages 7 to 18 performing more hours per week than their years of age or had a organized to free play ratio greater than 2:1 were at a higher risk for overuse injury (3). Sports specialization is shown to increase psychological stress which is a major component of overtraining or under-recovery syndrome (see previous blog post on this topic here here). Athletes are also more likely to reach a point of disinterest due to missing out on other aspects of being a kid. Because injury and burnout cause athletes to drop out of their sport, extra care is needed when considering limiting participation to one sport.

If your athlete’s goal is to play at a competitive level, emphasizing movement variety can actually be helpful in avoiding injury or burnout. The many great athletes of today who were multisport athletes in their youth would likely argue that many skills learned playing one sport transfer to another. Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks and winningest QB in his first four seasons, has the choice of playing professional football or baseball. In response to a question on whether he will ever make the switch, he says “Never Say Never” (4). Former US Olympic skier, Libby Ludlow writes about her experiences as a multisport athlete in her youth and the affect the other sports had on her professional career in a post on the ZGirls Blog (5). Perhaps all 10,000 hours may not need to be only in one sport. Ten years of committing to improving and increasing one’s total movement vocabulary may be enough to reach the highest level of play.

Only six percent of high school athletes go on to compete in the NCAA. From there, only a fraction of athletes progress from the NCAA to play professionally (.20% WNBA, .35% NFL) (6). It is safe to say that most of us would like a long, healthy, rich life including sports at whichever level of play is appropriate for each of us. Let’s think carefully about how much is too much. Talk with kids about goal setting and carefully consider training volume and variety to reach those goals and avoid burnout or injury. Most importantly, emphasize a long term commitment to health and fun.

 

  1. Baker, Joseph. “Early Specialization In Youth Sport: A Requirement For Adult Expertise?”. High Ability Studies 14.1 (2003): 85-94. Web.
  2. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Neeru Jayanthi, Courtney Pinkham, Lara Dugas, Brittany Patrick, Cynthia LaBella Sports Health. 2013 May; 5(3): 251–257. doi: 10.1177/1941738112464626. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3658407/
  3. Jayanthi, N. A. et al. “Sports-Specialized Intensive Training And The Risk Of Injury In Young Athletes: A Clinical Case-Control Study”. The American Journal of Sports Medicine 43.4 (2015): 794-801. Web.
  4. “Russell Wilson On Baseball Return: ‘Never Say Never'”. NFL.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.
  5. Ludlow, Libby. “A Multi-Sport Path To A Lifelong Dream: Reflections On The 40Th Anniversary Of Title IX – Zgirls”. ZGiRLS. N.p., 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.
  6. “Probability Of Competing Beyond High School”. NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. N.p., 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.