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Early Sport Specialization

Early Sport Specialization is becoming increasingly common among young athletes. Research has shown it may not be the best way to enhance skills and leads to increased risk of injury.

Young athletes who specialize in only one sport are almost twice as likely to suffer a serious overuse injury than young athletes who do not specialize.

Should You Do One Sport or Many?

Many parents and coaches believe the best way for a young athlete to reach elite status is to begin training at a young age in a single sport and train year-round; scientific evidence, however, contradicts this idea. Although sports specialization may seem like an effective way to maximize athletic talent, scientists have shown that early sport specialization increases young athletes’ physical injury risk, chance of psychological burnout, and the likelihood for the young athlete to drop out from the sport completely.

What the Research Says

  • Youth (ages 7-18 years) who specialized in one organized sport were almost twice as likely to experience a physical injury than those who did not.
  • Even at the high school age, there is still an increased risk for injury for those who specialize in only one sport.1 
  • Specializing in one sport can cause psychological burnout and lead to fewer days that the child will practice the sport of choice, decreases motivation during practice, and makes it more difficult for young people to deal with stress related to sport participation.
  • Less than half of young athletes who go on to participate in American Division I collegiate athletics specialized in only one sport during their senior year of high school; less than 20% had specialized by the ninth grade.  

Proven Drawbacks of Sport Specialization

  • Increased risk of various musculoskeletal injuries. 
  • Psychological burnout. 
  • A desire to quit participating in organized sports. 
  • Limited development of basic motor skills; neglect of motor skills gained through playing a variety of sports. 
  • Abnormal movement patterns. 

How to Take Action

  • Avoid pressuring young athletes to specialize in only one sport. Encourage them to try many different sports. Allow them to participate in sport(s) they want to participate in. 
  • If an athlete does choose to specialize in a single sport, encourage at least three continuous months of break from that particular sport each year. 

For a comprehensive scientific summary on this topic, please refer to Myer et al. (2015). 
References (Original Research)

  1. Jayanthi et al. (2015), Am J Sports Med, 43(4), 794-801
  2. Jayanthi et. al (2019), J Athl Train, 54(10), 1040-1049. 
  3. Hall et. al (2015), J Sport Rehabil, 24(1), 31-5.