Why Early Sport Specialization is Unhealthy and Ineffective
Is early sport specialization actually hurting your child’s chances at a college scholarship?
Early sport specialization continues to be a troubling trend in youth sports, despite research and studies showing it is actually more detrimental to a young athlete’s elite athletic goals than it is helpful. Ashley Heller, PT, MPT unpacks the numerous problems associated with early sport specialization and provides solutions for how to set your child up for success in high school and college athletics.
BY ASHLEY, PT, MPT, RAUSCH PHYSICAL THERAPY
Originally published: 4/25/17
We all know top universities want students who have the best grades, best athletic ability, and who are well-rounded with extracurricular activities. Even if you do get an acceptance letter, tuition hikes have students and parents concerned about how to pay for higher education. To ease the burden of student loans, a popular strategy is to get an athletic scholarship.
The pressure on young student-athletes to be the absolute best in their sport to increase their chances of getting into and paying for college is astounding, to the level that it has actually changed the way our society approaches youth athletics. Instead of having our kids play multiple sports in seasons and involving them in a variety of extracurricular activities, parents are encouraging their children to focus on only one sport year-round–all in hope they’ll become good enough to earn athletic scholarships.
However, this alarming trend of “early sport specialization” can actually have more drawbacks than benefits, and it’s happening at a younger and younger age as college competition continues to rise.
Cons of early sport specialization
Negative effects on grades, socialization–and your bank account
When a child “specializes” in one sport, their life (and their parents’ lives) revolves around it. Between club practice, high school practice, individual coaching and training sessions, etc., kids have little time for other things. This can have a detrimental effect on their academic performance, as well as limit their involvement in social or extracurricular activities. This often leads to burnout before they even reach high school.
Not to mention the cost of early sport specialization! All those private lessons, club teams, tournaments, travel costs, and specialized coaching adds up quick. Realistically, parents may spend more money on early sport specialization than what can even be awarded in scholarships.
The cold truth is that studies show that only 0.2% to 0.5% of U.S. high school athletes make it to the professional level. Ultimately, pressuring kids to specialize and overtrain at an early age will not make up for innate athletic talent.
Increased risk of injury
In addition to academic, social and financial issues, early sport specialization is also associated with increased risk of injury. Flexibility, mobility and coordination are all affected during and after growth spurts. Trying to specialize a child while they are still growing can lead to strength imbalances and movement pattern deficits, which can result in breaks, tears and sprains.
Year-round practices and games lead to overloading joints and the creation of repetitive, faulty movement patterns, which can result in overuse injuries. Studies indicate that risk of overuse injuries increases significantly when the number of hours spent training weekly exceeds the child’s age. Unfortunately, its the common and avoidable overuse injuries that plague youth sports–“little league elbow” in pitchers, shoulder instability in swimmers, and Osgood-Schlatter’s or Sever’s Disease in soccer players–that often stop collegiate or professional athletic dreams in their tracks.
Pros of sport and activity diversity
Early multisport participation has many benefits for youth athletes.
- It creates a solid motor skill foundation–coordination, balance, proprioception, motor planning and strength–which translates to athletic success and overall good health later in life
- It helps prevent burnout if the athlete plans to compete at a higher level
- It will promote motor skill development and improve their overall athletic skill when they reach the appropriate age (typically late-adolescence, around 16 years old) to specialize in one sport
Sports diversification is even more important now in our tech-driven society. Kids are spending more time in front of screens and less time playing outside. Outdoor “free play” is critical for young motor skill development, which is the foundation for building athletic skill. So, if you want your kids to be great at sports, get them outside early and often! They’ll develop a variety of movement patterns that will help reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve their overall athletic ability.
The importance of cross training for one-sport athletes
If your child is at the appropriate age and specializing in a specific sport, please consider adding cross training to their training regimen. Cross training helps:
- Prevent overuse injuries by providing rest to heavily trained muscle groups, which is extremely important for muscle rejuvenation and tissue health, and encouraging different movement patterns
- Complement strength training to reduce strength imbalances and improves overall core stability and power
- Minimize fatigue, enhance flexibility, and build endurance
If your goal is to be a collegiate or even professional athlete, this article is not meant to discourage you! I want to give you insight into what it takes to achieve this level of athletic ability while avoiding injury.
Here are some final thoughts to take away:
- The appropriate age for sports specialization is around 15 to 16 years old for most sports
- Not all high school athletes will be college or professional athletes, so manage your expectations
- Sports are supposed to be fun! If your child is getting tired of their sport, let them try something new
- Youth athletes should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports to develop a good foundation of motor skills
- Cross-train to become a well-rounded athlete and to avoid overuse/overtraining injuries
And if this article still hasn’t convinced you, the NCAA website includes in its NCAA Sport Science Institute resources and materials section Consensus Statement by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine which states:
Background: “Early sport specialization is not a requirement for success at the highest levels of competition and is believed to be unhealthy physically and mentally for young athletes. It also discourages unstructured free play, which has many benefits.”
Results: “The primary outcome of this think tank was that there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity. Early multisport participation will not deter young athletes from long-term competitive athletic success.”
Conclusion: “Youth advocates, parents, clinicians, and coaches need to work together with the sport governing bodies to ensure healthy environments for play and competition that do not create long-term health issues yet support athletic competition at the highest level desired.”
So, let’s shift our approach to youth sports and be smarter when it comes to our children’s health and well-being. By encouraging your child to play multiple sports, managing your and their expectations, and incorporating cross training, you can set them up for success to achieve their athletic and academic goals and thrive both on and off the playing field.
References & Additional Reading:
- NCAA “Well-Being” (NCAA.org)
- “Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes” by Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, et al. (Sports Health 2016)
- “Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case-control study” by Jayanthi NA, LaBella CR, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR. (Am J Sports Med. 2015)
Ashley Heller, PT, MPT is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. She received her Masters of Physical Therapy degree at California State University, Long Beach and is passionate about working with patients with shoulder, knee and ankle injuries. With background in orthopedic-related injuries and post-operative rehabilitation, Ashley believes that the combination of manual therapy and personalized therapeutic exercise program is vital to recovery. Known as the Water Sports PT, Ashley says her goal is to help her patients better understand their injuries and the plan for their road to recovery.