Published on September 29, 2021

Sports Specialization – What’s all the hype?

Youth sports today look different than they did just a few generations ago. In the past, “play” was a pick-up game after school, it was recreational and unstructured, the goal was to have fun, socialize and develop a lifelong love of physical activity. Today’s youth “play” is adult-led, structured and focused on winning. This competitive shift in youth sports has led to an increasing number of children specializing in one sport at a young age. The benefits of youth sports are countless; however, early sports specialization may threaten these positive aspects.

Photo of a young boy pitching a baseball

What is sports specialization?

The definition of sports specialization is intense, year-round training in a single sport. Research in athletes has not been able to consistently demonstrate that early intense training is essential for attaining elite status down the road, with the exception of women’s gymnastics and figure skating (in which peak performance typically occurs prior to full maturation and requires intense training before puberty).

Why do youth specialize in one sport?

So why would youth athletes want to specialize in one sport? And more important, have we ever asked them? Youth may feel pressure from parents and coaches to focus all of their training on one sport, they might have aspirations to obtain a college scholarship or make it an elite level. However, recent estimates from the NCAA have shown only 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent of high school athletes compete at the collegiate level and only one percent receive an athletic scholarship. Additionally, many of the athletes participating at this level today did not specialize in their youth. A study of Division I athletes found that 82 percent did not specialize until they were at least 12 years old and the average age of specialization was 14.9 years old.

What are the effects of sport specialization?

Early specialization in sport has been linked to overuse injuries and overtraining/burnout. In fact, youth who specialize have an 85 percent increased risk of injury compared to their peers who do not specialize. When young athletes focus on one activity they repeatedly stress the same muscle, tendon, joint or bone without adequate time to recover and consequently overuse injuries occur. More than half of youth sports injuries are overuse injuries and many of these injuries are preventable.

Drop-out rate also increases in youth athletes who specialize before they are 15 years old. There may come a time when doing the same activity every day is no longer fun, and the desire to perform decreases or the pressure to make a team or attain the next level becomes too much. Possibly the worst outcome of early sports specialization is injury and dropout, followed by a sedentary lifestyle and loss of enjoyment of physical activity that may have long-term consequences into adulthood.

How do professional coaches feel about sports specialization?

Take a look at what some highly respected college and professional coaches and staff have to say about multi-sport athletes.

Pete Carroll, former USC and now Seattle Seahawks Football coach has said, “The first questions I’ll ask about a kid are, ‘What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?’ All of those things are important to me. I hate that kids don’t play three sports in high school. I think that they should play year-round and get every bit of it that they can through that experience. I really, really don’t favor kids having to specialize in one sport. Even [at USC], I want to be the biggest proponent for two-sport athletes on the college level. I want guys that are so special athletically, and so competitive, that they can compete in more than one sport.”

Christ Bates, Princeton, men’s lacrosse: “Multi-sport athletes have a high level of athleticism but probably haven’t peaked yet as lacrosse players. Once they get to college they will specialize and will develop and blossom. They usually have a steep growth curve, whereas some of the kids who have been single-sport athletes tend to burn out quicker. Oftentimes, they don’t have as much left in the tank.”

How can parents reduce sports specialization risk for their children?

To reduce the risks associated with sport specialization the National Federation of State High School Associations recommends youth athletes should not participate:

  • In a single sport for more than eight months per year
  • In more hours of organized sport per week than their age (i.e., a 14-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 14 hours of organized sport per week)
  • In multiple leagues of the same sport at the same time

Can sports specialization be done safely?

So is it ever safe to specialize? Yes. Delaying sport specialization until after puberty (around 15 or 16 years old), while following the recommendations listed above, can minimize the risks and lead to higher likelihood of athletic success. Young athletes can still learn many important fundamental skills with early participation in multiple sports, skills that will transfer to their primary sport if they decide to specialize later.

So, for now, let your children be given chances to participate in free, unstructured play. Let them run, jump, climb a tree, play basketball at the park with their friends, encourage them to participate in a variety of sports and activities that make them happy. It’s our job as parents, coaches and health care providers to steer them down a safer path.