specializing in a sport

Is it smart to set athletes up for specializing in a sport at a young age? That is a question that comes up often in coaching, training, and when helping young athletes to overcome sports injuries. The answer is contested, and if you don’t think so, just visit a youth game, swim meet, fencing tournament, or anything! Parents and athletes want to ensure the pathway to success is clear and fraught with hard work and targeted training. That is the course, is it not? The more an athlete trains and prepares for a sport, the better that athlete is at it.

Of the Nearly 8 million high school athletes across the US, only 480,000 – or 6 percent – will compete at the college level. (NCAA)

Specializing in a sport at a young age can cause both psychological and physical injuries. It is up to the parents and coaches to do what is right for an athlete, not what they think is right for them. Is it impossible, or absolutely wrong all the time? No, but when encouraging a youth athlete to begin specializing in a sport, make sure it’s a decision that you have thoroughly investigated.

Specializing in a Sport Too Soon

A 2016 Press Release from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that 60 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 years participated in sports annually. Of those players, 27% played only one sport. These athletes primarily played the same sport year-round and on different teams throughout the year (AAP).

Two influences affect participation in and training in youth sports. While parents are the most influential in getting kids to participate in sports, coaches are the most influential in training for that sport (Sport Specialization in Young Athletes). Specializing in a sport too soon provokes great concern about injury and damage to a young athlete. These are the 7 athletes who typically begin specializing in a sport too soon.

What is Specializing in a Sport?

Specializing in a sport is when an athlete decides to focus all of his/her attention on one specific sport, forgoing other sports so that training occurs only for the one. In some cases, athletes specialize further by focusing only on one position or stroke within that sport.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers analyzed a study conducted by K. Anders Ericcson in 1993 and Gladwell determined that expert performance in a mental or physical skill requires at least 10 years and over 10,000 hours of dedication and practice.  That is a conclusion that has become pervasive in the industry. The perception is that if youth athletes spend all their time on a single sport, they won’t get distracted with or become injured by another.

The 1993 study suggested specialization in three stages:

  1. Starting at an early age
  2. Specializing in and increasing participation in a single sport
  3. Full-time dedication to the single sport

The hope is that laser focus makes the most successful athlete. However, he doesn’t suggest hours alone are the key. Since the 10,000 hour rule became well-known, he has discussed the importance of deliberate practice, not simply practice for elite performance.

Why are Athletes Specializing So Soon?

The reasons for specializing in a sport can be linked to a number of factors over the years. From the hopes of college scholarships to the glorification of million-dollar athletes, the dreams of specialization can bring success to youth athletes, who – with high hopes, will become all-star athletes in their sport.

Let’s not forget that the rise in social media and shift in advertising strategies, which target consumers at a younger age, both play a role in the perception of specialized sports and training for those sports.

A 2013 article, “Sports Specialization vs Diversification,” by Edward M. Wojtys, MD offers some insight about why specialization and single-sport play has become so common in the US over the past 50 years, and how the shift in play has contributed to specialization.

Dr. Wojtys mentions that unstructured and unsupervised sports – or what we called play – when we were younger – is no longer as important or encouraged for younger kids and athletes. Kids spend less time in city leagues, open teams, neighborhood courts, fields and pools, instead opting for year-round traveling teams, private lessons, and expensive clubs.

Dr. Woitjys says that sports are now more common than they were just 40 years ago, and now instead of being an athlete in multiple sports isn’t as valued or valuable as being the BEST athlete in a single sport.

What the ads don’t tell you and the private lessons don’t mention is that diversification and play both played major roles it the success of elite athletes. When a soccer goalie can anticipate plays because he/she has played all the positions, they are a better goalie because of it. Swimmers who explore various strokes don’t suffer from overuse injuries as often. Baseball players who dabble in track or ride bikes with friends on the weekends, have a greater lung capacity and develop different muscles than those who do not.

At What Age Should Kids Start Specializing in a Sport?

What is the magical age at which kids should begin specializing in sports? That answer depends on whom you ask and what the desired outcome is for the young athlete.

It is not uncommon for kids to gravitate toward a single sport as young as 3 or 4 years of age. They climb on dirt bikes, jump in the pool, or prefer to flip around on a balance beam. The same study that suggested over 10,000 hours of training over 10 years also said that training should begin around the age of 5. The reason? Because athletes who start later never quite catch up to their peers who started younger in life.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not agree, and it balances that suggestion by recommending youth athletes diversify their participation at a young age, which will create a better, more diverse athlete. The AAP says:

  • Parents should encourage young athletes to participate in multiple sports and activities.
  • Children who participate in multiple sports or diversify their positions in a single sport will enjoy sports longer and are more successful in achieving athletic goals.
  • Waiting to specialize until after puberty – between the 15 and 16 years of age – reduces overuse injuries in athletes.
  • Pressure to specialize and outperform in a single sport contributes to nearly 70% of athletes to drop out before the age of 13.

Dangers of Specializing in a Sport

As I said before, specializing in a sport too soon causes both mental and psychological injuries among youth athletes. The AAP, medical professionals, researchers, and many parents agree that specializing in a sport too soon is dangerous. The likelihood that an athlete with receive a full-ride scholarship, a trip to the Olympics, or a professional contract are slim, but the risk for physical or psychological injury is much higher.

Psychological Injuries

Researchers conclude that psychological injuries that arise out of specializing in a sport too soon are:

  • Boredom with the sport
  • Stress and anxiety from the pressure to outperform in a single sport
  • “Burn out”

Physical Injuries

Physical injuries are always a concern in any sport, but when kids begin specializing in a sport too soon, the risk for injury increases tremendously. The biggest culprit is overuse. Overuse injuries are the number one risk for injuries among specialized youth players.

Overuse injuries can result in the following:

  • Thrower’s elbow
  • Knee injuries and tears
  • Swimmer’s shoulder
  • Exhaustion

Conclusion: Advice from Dr. John

It’s true that kids who participate in sports lead healthier, more active lives for the rest of their lives. That can be stunted, however, by the psychological and physical effects of specializing in a sport too soon and with too much intensity. There is a higher risk for injury and dropout among specialized youth athletes than there is success for doing so.

Youth athletes need balance, and they should pursue physical activities in which they are interested, not what their parents and coaches think they should be interested in or specializing in. Kids who play multiple sports and diversify activity are more successful in their sport over the long run.

If kids do favor one sport over another or begin to specialize, the appropriate precautions should be taken. Parents, coaches and pediatricians must work together to ensure the safety and success of the youth athlete. The athlete is the primary concern.

Here are my tips for youth athletes and their families who decide to begin specializing in a sport:

  • Encourage athletes to take time off from a sport during the year so they don’t do the same one every single month. Failure to take a break will lead to burn-out and overuse injuries. Athletes should play other sports or remain active during this time.
  • Discuss a training plan, as well as long-term goal, with the athlete and his/her parents, and the pediatrician to develop a realistic training, fitness, and nutrition plan.
  • Encourage rest days so that athletes are not working out of competing 7 days per week.
  • Check in with the child’s physical and emotional well-being throughout the season.
  • Find a healthy balance between family time, sports, and fun.
  • Enroll high school athletes in safe conditioning and strength training camps to help prevent injury and boredom.
  • Seek and find well-trained professionals keeping in mind long-term athletic development and general health, not simply short-term sporting success.

Remember, if you want a horse to sprint, whip it and ride it hard. Unfortunately, this strategy will wear down the horse and break it down. Your children are not horses, keep them healthy, happy, and enjoying life!

If you have a youth athlete, make sure to look at the entire picture. Schedule a free performance screen and take a look at the complete picture, don’t rush for short-term success.

References:

  1. Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, Tesch-Romer C. The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychol Rev. 1993;100(3):363-406
  2. Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & LaBella, C. (2013). Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health5(3), 251–257. http://doi.org/10.1177/1941738112464626
  3. Wojtys, E. M. (2013). Sports Specialization vs Diversification. Sports Health,5(3), 212–213. http://doi.org/10.1177/1941738113484130.