Early Sports Specialization in Young Athletes

In the United States, it is estimated that 72% of school-aged youth (8 to 17 years old) participate in at least one organized sport. Sports participation has many benefits, including living a healthy lifestyle, having a positive self-image, and building social relationships. It is also estimated that nearly 30% of school-aged athletes specialize in a single sport year-round6. Sports specialization has been defined as intensive year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports4. This may include athletes who:

  1. Choose one main sport,
  2. Participate for greater than eight months per year in one main sport, and
  3. Quit all other sports to focus on one sport.

Young athletes who engage in year-round intense training programs in a single sport are prone to overuse injuries, burnout, and dropping out of sports. Sports believed to be most susceptible to these negative consequences are baseball (pitchers especially), cheerleading, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis, and volleyball.

Injury, Burnout, and Dropping out of Sports

Evidence is emerging which shows specialized young athletes are at more risk for injury compared to those who engage in multiple sports. One study of 7 to 18 year old athletes, showed that those who specialized in a single sport were 2.25 more likely to sustain a serious overuse injury compared to unspecialized young athletes4. Another study of 546 high school athletes found a relationship between the development of knee injuries and single- sport training in those engaged in basketball, soccer, and volleyball3. It appears that female high school athletes who specialize in a single sport are particularly vulnerable to hip and knee overuse injuries1,3. A possible explanation for these injury trends is the lack of diversified activity which may not allow young athletes to develop the appropriate neuromuscular skills that are effective in injury prevention. Year-round training in a single sport also does not allow for the necessary rest from repetitive use of the same muscles and segments of the body. The positive transfer of skill with diversification of sport participation is important in the successful development of any young athlete2.

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Young athletes are under a tremendous amount of pressure brought about by adult-driven specialized training programs, weekend tournaments, showcases, and competitions. The psychological risk of burnout, depression, and increased risk of injury is believed to result in withdrawal from sport. In the physical therapy clinic, we are faced with many young athletes who lose their desire to return to sport following injury. It is my belief that these young athletes view their injury as a means to escape from the increased pressures of youth sports. Research has indicated that adolescents need to enjoy their sport, and that intrinsic motivators are keys to maintaining participation and goal achievement in sports. Unfortunately, this is often not the case as the temptation of collegiate scholarships and stardom causes thousands of adolescent athletes to specialize in single sports. While this may result in more highly skilled, sport-mature athletes at a younger age, it is isolating the child and has the potential to lead to increased stress and pressure. Consequently the child loses a sense of control or decision-making power over their lives. These consequences may be far-reaching with the adolescents overall maturation and development5.

Conclusion

Parents and coaches should be cautious with encouraging young athletes to engage in intense year-round training specialized in any single sport. Adults involved in instruction of youth sports should be on the alert for signs of burnout, and physical symptoms in highly specialized athletes and be prepared to take corrective action such as backing off training. A more proactive approach is the better option. Encouraging multiple sports participation has the benefits of reducing injury risk, decreasing the chance of burnout, and the promotion of basic motor skills which will enhance the young athletes overall development throughout their lifespan.

References

  1. Bell DR, Post EG, Trigsted SM, Hetzel S, Mcguine TA, Brooks MA. Prevalence of sport specialization in high school athletics: A 1-year observational study. Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(6):1469-1474. doi:10.1177/0363546516629943.
  2. Fransen J, Pion J, Vandendriessche J, et al. Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6 – 12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(4):379-386.
  3. Hall R, Foss KB, Hewett TE, Myer GD. Sport specialization’s association with an increased risk of developing anterior knee pain in adolescent female athletes. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24:31-35.
  4. Jayanthi NA, Labella CR, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR. Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: A clinical case-control study. Am J Sports Med. 2015;43(4):794-801. doi:10.1177/0363546514567298.
  5. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori J p, et al. Sport specialization, part I: Does early sports specialization increase negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes? Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2015;7(5):437-442. doi:10.1177/1941738115598747.
  6. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sports specialization, part II: Alternative solutions to early sport specialization in youth athletes. Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2016;8(1):65-73. doi:10.1177/1941738115614811.
  7. Bell DR, Post EG, Trigsted SM, Hetzel S, Mcguine TA, Brooks MA. Prevalence of sport specialization in high school athletics: A 1-year observational study. Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(6):1469-1474. doi:10.1177/0363546516629943.