Nothing says the holiday season more than talking about early specialization of sport in youth athletes, am I right?! Maybe it’s just me, but I find myself discussing this issue more and more with parents and coaches. I lead a very exciting life, needless to say. Regardless of whether you are a parent or not, you should be aware of the risks associated with early specialization in sport, especially if you are planning a family or already have one!
What is Early Sport Specialization?
Let’s start by being specific about what early sport specialization is and go from there. Early specialization in sport is considered “intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports”. (1) There is variability in the definition, but generally speaking we are talking about participation that is heavily weighed in one specific sport for the vast majority of the calendar year. History (and research) has shown a steady incline in early specialization in youth athletes (33% increase over 11 years in one study from 2010) (2). Anecdotally, I’m sure you as a parent or adult can also attest to this change, either from personal experience with your child or hearing stories about your best friends child playing hockey or swimming 5-6 times a week. So I guess the big question is, why should we care? Lots of reasons is my answer…
Pitfalls of Early Sport Specialization
First, consider how you would feel coming home from work everyday, grabbing your hockey or swimming gear and doing a structured workout 5-6 days of the week for 1-2 hours each time. Throw in the occasional weekend of competition on top of that, and keep doing that for 5 or 6 years straight. Here is your rest time: when you go on vacation you don’t participate in that sport, and you may also have 2 months of the year where you only participate in that sport twice a week. Do you think your body will enjoy that experience? Maybe for a year, maybe two if you are lucky, but you might start to feel a wee bit of burnout (or a lot…). This is DEFINITELY a risk we are taking when we allow youth athlete’s to specialize early and something well documented and discussed in the literature (1, 3, 4). NEXT!
Aside from burnout, we see a significant increase in injury risk with early specialization in sport (1,3,4). Injury rates will increase with an increase in training volume (hours per week of the same sport) (1,3,4). Even our saviour Kawhi Leonard needs to manage his playing and practice time to reduce his injury risk, and he’s a pro baller in case you were on the moon in 2019. Unfortunately, coaches and team trainers are often less likely to include diverse and appropriate dry-land training into the yearly routine which may be part of the issue. Skill based training and practice is often utilized in youth programs, which breeds skill acquisition in their sport of choice but poor movement variability overall (have you ever watched your hockey player squat…). I feel like I don’t need to explain this one further. NEXT!
This might be a tough one to swallow, but early specialization in sport pre-puberty has not yet demonstrated an increased incidence of progression to elite-level athletics, especially in team-based sports. In fact, retrospective studies have found that a vast majority of elite-level athletes specialize in one sport later in adolescents, and on top of this they may compete in multiple sports at one time during childhood and adolescent years (1). A 2019 study on NCAA athletes (these are elite-level athletes in case you were wondering) found a mean age of sport specialization to be around 15 years old, with nearly 50% of the study participants reporting that they competed in more than one sport until the age of 16 (4). The same study also found that early specialization was less likely in team-based sports versus individual sports, which does throw a wrench into the mix for some of our athletes, but do we really need to expose our tennis players and swimmers to these risks anyway? Hmmmmm…… NEXT!
Last but not least, we need to remember our motivations for getting our children into sport in the first place. Maybe it was to promote a healthy lifestyle, learn how to be part of a team, learn a new skill, etc., etc.. Regardless, wouldn’t it be a shame for your child or teenager to lose motivation because they feel burnt-out, lose interest in competition, or are tired of being injured and would rather stay at home? I’d say yes to that.
So to break it down, early specialization in sport seems fairly unnecessary with the risks outweighing the rewards. It seems like I am painting all youth athletes with a broad brush, which is fair to say, but needs to be said. Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t. Maybe you and your child are ready to make a change, but maybe you aren’t.
I’m happy to open up the conversation and share more knowledge, so please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading and happy holidays!
Jordan Fortuna, Manager of Clinical Services
Jordan is a graduate of the University of Toronto Physiotherapy program and has since been practicing in orthopaedic settings. He has developed an interest in sports physiotherapy through his many years as an athlete, participating in baseball, golf, snowboarding, and more recently rock-climbing, cycling, and strength training. He has worked with a variety of clientele including athletes from disciplines such as competitive dancing, running, rock-climbing, and mixed-martial arts, as well as non-athletes of a wide age range and ability. Regardless of activity level, he is dedicated to improving mobility, optimizing function, and strengthening to help achieve your goals through the use of an individualized exercise prescription and manual therapy. He also has additional training in acupuncture and sports taping.
- Jayanthi, N, Pinkham, C, Dugas, L, Patrick, B, and LaBella, C. Sports specialization in young athletes: Evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 2012; 5(3): 251-257.
- 2. Malina RM. Early sport specialization: roots, effectiveness, risks. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010; 9(6):364-371.
- Wilhelm, A, Choi, C, and Deitch, J. Early sport specialization: Effectiveness and risk of injury in professional baseball players. Ortho. J. Sports Med. 2017; 5(9)
- 4. Swindell, HW, Marcille, ML, Trofa, DP, Paulino, FE, Desai, NN, Lunch, TS, Ahmad, CS, and Popkin, CA. An analysis of sports specialization in NCAA Division I collegiate athletics. Ortho. J. Sports Med. 2019; 7(1)