Does early sports specialization in youth athletics limit the chances of success and increase injury risk?
Research reviewed: Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? (Myer et al; Sports Health, 2015)
As sports participation and competition continues to grow, there’s an increasing number of youth athletes beginning to specialize in a single sport - defined as training for one sports greater than eight months per year, choosing a single main sport, and/or quitting all other sports to focus on one sport - at earlier and earlier ages, often at the behest of coaches, parents, or other players.
The key question becomes:
Are there any significant negative impacts resulting from single sport specialization?
This week’s paper - a clinical review that examined the breadth of evidence on the topic - intended to answer that pressing question.
Here’s what they came away with:
Single sport specialization in young athletes has risks of injury and psychological burnout (often leading to decreased performance or dropping out altogether), with a higher extent of specialization correlated with a higher risk of serious overuse injury.
Injury risk factors for single-sport specialized youth athletes include year-round single sport training, participation in more competition, decreased age-appropriate play, and involvement in individual sports that require early development of technical skills.
Adults instructing the youth athletes (coaches, parents, etc) also play a key role in increasing injury risk by encouraging increased intensity during organized practices and competitions rather than self-directed unstructured free play
Youth athletes need to be encouraged and given opportunities for unstructured free play. This both decreases injury risk but also enhances motor skill development
Youth athletes should be encouraged to participate in a variety of sports while growing in order to develop a diverse array of motor skills and identify sports they enjoy.
My key take: WE STILL HAVE TO LET KIDS BE KIDS. Let them grow and develop rather than trying to force them into a regimented, narrow box when they aren’t ready for it. It’s a conceptual mismatch and, more generally, goes against well-established principles of healthy child development.