In the United States, there has been a steady increase in sports participation across all age groups. An estimated 30-45 million youths, ages ranging from 6-18, participate in some form of recreational or organized athletics.
Single sport specialization has become increasingly popular among parents and coaches due to the common belief that it is the best way to develop an elite athlete. Sports specialization can be defined as “intensive year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports.” The degree of specialization can vary where a highly-specialized athlete may:
- Choose a main sport
- Participate for greater than eight months per year in their main sport
- Quit all other sports to focus on one sport
Early sports specialization can result in increased risk for overuse injury and burnout. There is also increased psychological stress on young athletes when they are participating in adult-driven specialized training and competition.
The risks of sports-related injuries are much greater with early sports specialization for a few reasons:
- The lack of diversified activity can result in a young athlete that lacks the appropriate neuromuscular skills necessary to prevent injury.
- The repetitive movements and high training volumes required for specialization does not allow the athlete necessary rest and recovery to prevent overuse injuries.
To counteract these risks, parents and coaches should encourage participation in a wide variety of sports and monitor young athletes closely for signs of burnout and excessive training volume.
Early sports specialization has been identified as being damaging to the physical and mental health of young athletes and future efforts should be focused on putting this knowledge into practice.
To address the risks associated with early sports specialization, avoid overscheduling, monitor burnout, and emphasize skill development, smart training, and fun-to-foster lifelong physical activity.