The landscape of youth sports is changing. Kids watch pro-athletes and emulate them. They “want to be like Mike.” In pursuit of this dream, youth athletes, coaches, and parents feel the best way to achieve the goal [reach professional level] is by specializing in one sport.
Being part of an organized team at a young age has many benefits, such as promoting healthy lifestyles, positive self-image, and building social relationships. In fact, nearly 72% of school-aged youth (8-17 yrs) in the U.S. participate in at least one organized sport!1 Similarly, there has been an increase from 18 million youth sport participants in 1987 to 60 million in 20082.
However, there seems to be a shift happening. First, more youth are moving from the multi-sport athlete to the one-sport athlete. Second, the seasons are growing longer, and training is becoming more intense. It’s no secret that youth sports are becoming more competitive. Therefore, in an effort to “be the best,” parents and coaches are putting a lot of pressure on youth athletes to specialize in one sport. This means they are engaging in a single sport for at least three seasons a year at the exclusion of other sports3.
Recently, a study sampling nearly 1,200 U.S. athletes found that 30% were highly specialized1. The reasons for specializing were found to be the pursuit of scholarships, professional contracts, and wanting to be recognized by parents, coaches, or peers for being highly talented. Another study found that 54.7% of parents encouraged their children to specialize in one sport for reasons of hoping their child will play collegiately or professionally4.
What are the chances of kids making it to the professional level? Well, quite lower than some may realize. Only 3.3% – 11.3% of high school athletes move on to the collegiate level. Even further, only 1% receive an athletic scholarship. And playing professionally? ~0.03% – 0.5% of high school athletes will make it to the professional level4.
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It shouldn’t be left unsaid that there are benefits to early sport specialization. The most notable and obvious benefit is the ability to develop and become proficient with skills related to a given sport5. An athlete that spends a significant amount of time practicing a set of skills may become more proficient than one who only practices periodically, as would be the case with diversification.
The theory behind specializing is the belief that the younger an athlete starts within a specific sport, the quicker they develop the necessary skills and the earlier they become an expert at those skills. This theory stems from the “10,000 Hour Rule” as explained by psychologist Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell proposed the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in a specific field. This rule has been applied to music, work, and sports. When applied to athletics, it is used to justify the need for youth athletes to start early in a specific sport in order to develop the skills and specific movements to improve their strengths and decrease their weaknesses.
Many people have drawn upon this theory to market the importance of specializing in their particular sport.
Readiness for sports is related to the match between a child’s level of growth, development (motor, sensory, cognitive, social/emotional), and the tasks and/or demands of that competitive sport6.
Many parents and coaches use chronological age to determine sport development of a particular athlete. However, this is a poor indicator. Youth athletes, and children in general, progress at different rates cognitively and socially, independent of age.
It is important for parents and coaches to acknowledge this and become educated on the normal development signs of readiness. If it goes unrecognized, unrealistic expectations are placed on the children, making them feel that they are not progressing fast enough for their sport, leading to low self-esteem and withdrawal from the sport itself.
The latter are one of two psychological concerns of specializing at such a young age. Some children will naturally withdraw from the sport as they age and get involved with different activities. However, it is a problem when children start to withdraw due to the over-involvement and expectations placed on them by parents and adults, added pressure to win, and time constraints5. The second psychological concern is burnout.
Burnout can be an unfortunate result of early sport specialization. It is defined as “the long-term end result of emotional and/or physical exhaustion and occurs when a previously enjoyable activity becomes an aversive source of stress5
The data1-7 suggests that burnout stems from chronic stress placed on the young athlete either due to overtraining, too much activity without proper rest, or increased pressure placed on them to perform. Too many young athletes are chauffeured to multiple practices, training sessions, or games throughout the week without any real say on it. Burnout should be respected as a serious psychological issue in the young athlete.
In short, burnout has both physical and mental effects on the athlete. Burnout causes their young bodies to break down, which is followed by decreased performance and increased risk of injury.
Symptoms of burnout include but are not limited to fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, lack of social life, moodiness, lack of interest in other activities, or having a limited appetite. If any of these are occurring, burnout should be considered, and a conversation needs to be had with the young athlete. For a full list, please see the referenced work by DiFiori JP, et al.
Overuse injuries can happen to any active person at any point of their life. When the body is repeatedly stressed and not taken care of properly, overuse injuries happen. However, the key difference in overuse injuries in adults compared to young athletes is that young athletes are still growing. Constant changes in bodyweight, height, and muscle mass are all added stressors to the young joints and connective tissue.
Similarly, high training volumes often associated with the high demands of year-round sports have been shown to increase the risk of overuse injuries. Approximately 50% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports are related to overuse, and the risks of overuse are more serious in the young athlete compared to older athlete.
As a result, the underdeveloped and still growing muscular system of the youth athlete can’t correctly handle the stressors of repetitive activity. For example, common injuries seen in youth baseball are “Little League Elbow” and “Little League Shoulder.” In swimming, athletes may develop symptoms of rotator cuff tendonitis due to the 30,000 swim strokes that swimmers average in one week.
It shouldn’t go unsaid that many people within the medical profession believe the benefits of sports participation are greater than the risks. Children should be encouraged to play sports at a young age, but the predisposing factors of overuse injuries should be made known (Table 1).
Table 1: Risk Factors of Injury7
On the opposite end of sport specialization is sport diversification. This refers to youth playing multiple sports as often as possible, with the focus on playing and not so much on practice. It is thought that this helps develop true enjoyment of the sport, leading to structured play or, later on, specializing in a sport they grow to love.
Sport diversification can help develop physical and cognitive abilities quicker due to the different skills each sport has to offer, and the carry-over of skills from one to another. See Table 2 below for examples on how one sport, such as soccer, may help develop someone’s baseball skills.
If you’ve made it this far, the big question is, “If people choose to specialize at a young age, what can be done to mitigate the risks?” While there is much support for sport diversification for many reasons, sport specialization is going to continue. Read our top five tips to reducing these risks, found below.
Also, resources are listed below that provide more detail on specialization of youth athletes, as well as links to the articles cited in this paper.
*This is helpful information, but it is general information. This is NOT medical advice. If you already have any injury, pain, tightness, etc., please seek help from a licensed and qualified healthcare provider like us, performance physical therapy in Green Bay. A complete solution for what you’re dealing with needs to be customized to all the different factors driving your pain, and those factors will be at least slightly different for each person. These strategies may help, but they’re not likely to be a complete solution for each individual reading this now or in the future.
1. Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sports Specialization, Part II. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 2015;8(1):65-73. doi:10.1177/1941738115614811.
2. Ferguson B, Stern PJ. A case of early sports specialization in an adolescent athlete. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2014;58(4):377–383.
3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The growing trend of youth sports specialization. PR Newswire: press release distribution, targeting, monitoring and marketing. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-growing-trend-of-youth-sports-specialization-300608434.html. Published June 27, 2018. Accessed February 17, 2020.
4. Brenner JS. Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2148.
5. Wiersma LD. Risks and Benefits of Youth Sport Specialization: Perspectives and Recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2000;12(1):13-22. doi:10.1123/pes.12.1.13.
6. Difiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner JS, et al. Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2014;48(4):287-288. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-093299.
7. Brenner JS. Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. Pediatrics. 2007;119(6):1242-1245. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0887.