Early Sports Specialization: Does Practice Make Perfect?

Kirsten Garvey, MS and Elizabeth Matzkin, MD

There has been a steady increase in sports participation across all age groups in the United States. An estimated 30-45 million youths ranging from 6 to 18 years of age participate in some form of recreational or organized athletics.1 Single sport specialization has become increasingly popular - often among parents and coaches who believe it is the best way to develop an elite athlete.2 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. A highly specialized athlete may 1) Choose a main sport, 2) Participate for greater than 8 months per year in their main sport, and 3) Quit all other sports to focus on one sport.3 A recent AOSSM consensus statement highlighted the negative side effects of early sports specialization, including an increased risk for overuse injury and burnout.4 A research review also found a relationship between exposure to higher training volumes and risk of injury.5 Increased psychological stress on young athletes who are participating in adult-driven specialized training and competition is also of concern.3

The risks of sports-related injuries are much greater with early sports specialization for several reasons. The lack of diversified activity results 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 athletes the 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.  One recommendation includes utilizing the off-season for specific youth physical development programs that incorporate integrative neuromuscular training (INT) to enhance muscular fitness and motor skill performance, creating a baseline to prevent sports-related injuries.6 Youth should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different and unstructured sports. 

The AOSSM consensus statement developed recommendations to address the risks of early sports specialization. These include:

1) Avoid overscheduling, 
2) Monitor burnout, and 
3) Emphasize skill development and fun to foster lifelong physical activity.

Early sports specialization has been identified as damaging to the physical and mental health of young athletes and future efforts should be focused on putting this knowledge into practice.

1. Hall R, Barber Foss K, Hewett TE, Myer GD. Sport specialization’s association with an increased risk of developing anterior knee pain in adolescent female athletes. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24(1):31-35. doi:10.1123/jsr.2013-0101.
2. Feeley BT, Agel J, LaPrade RF. When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? Am J Sports Med. 2016. doi:10.1177/0363546515576899.
3. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sport Specialization, Part I. Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2015;7(5):437-442. doi:10.1177/1941738115598747.
4. Laprade RF, Agel J, Baker J, et al. AOSSM Early Sport Specialization Consensus Statement. doi:10.1177/2325967116644241.
5. Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257.
6. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, et al. Sports Specialization, Part II. Sport Heal A Multidiscip Approach. 2016;8(1):65-73. doi:10.1177/1941738115614811.

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