When I was growing up, I played a different sport every season– soccer, swimming, basketball and more. Now many kids as young as seven or eight years old are pushed to play only one sport. What are the risks of this early sport specialization?
One of the factors thought to be associated with increasing overuse injuries among young athletes is this early single-sport specialization. By definition, this term refers to “intensive year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports.”
In addition to the risks of overuse injuries that early specialization creates, many experts argue that it has negative effects on the athletes in other ways. In a review article recently published in the journal Sports Health, a number of youth sports experts review studies of young athletes and conclude that early specialization could be detrimental to the athletes themselves.
Year-round sport exposure
Kids who play a variety of sports might be more likely to take at least one season off than those who only play one sport. Playing year round without a break significantly increases a young athlete’s risk of overuse injury.
Highly technical and demanding skills
Athletes who specialize and become elite playing physically demanding sports could subject their bodies to repetitive stress on parts of their bodies more than kids who play a variety of sports. Elite tennis players stress their shoulders and backs. Gymnasts stress their wrists. Young baseball pitchers place tremendous stress on their shoulders and elbows. These demands increase the risk of injuries.
Demanding schedules and competition
More competitive athletes, which many children and adolescents are if they only play one sport, often play a large number of games, tournaments, matches and meets. They often practice all week and travel to compete each weekend. Some tournaments require the athletes to play many games each day or compete for hours each day of the weekend. Given the high level of competition at these events, young athletes rarely ask for rest, placing a great toll on their bodies.
Burnout from early sport specialization
This is possibly the greatest consequence of early specialization. Burnout often causes young athletes to quit their sports altogether. The pressures often placed on young kids to succeed by parents and coaches can be tremendous. Huge amounts of time spent with their teams and not with friends and family can be discouraging. Plus the pressure to win, earn college scholarships and impress pro scouts creates an emotional burden on adolescent athletes.
Several studies looking at elite swimmers, tennis and ice hockey players have shown higher burnout rates and subsequent dropout rates due to early sport specialization in those sports and training more hours at earlier ages.
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach published online before print August 6, 2015.