by Jason Schexnayder, PT, DPT, CMTPT

What is Early Sports Specialization?

Early sports specialization is a “hot topic” right now. Early sport specialization is when a child (ages 6 – 16) participates in intensive year-round training &/or competition in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports or activities. Typically, this involves a young athlete participating in a single sport for more than 8 months out of the year. 

Many young athletes have transitioned to this type of sport participation. Parents, coaches, & athletes alike tend to believe this will lead to success in that sport. However, due to misinformation, you’ve been misled.

Despite popular belief, early specialization increases injury risk. Also, it DOES NOT typically lead to “elite” status. Elite status refers to a child competing at a college, professional, or Olympic level.

Misconceptions on the topic…

Many years ago there was a study that said that to reach an elite status one had to train &/or to compete for 10,000+ hours within 10 years. Because of this article, people thought that athletes had to train & compete at similar levels to reach elite status. What’s interesting is that this paper was performed on chess players, NOT on athletes competing in a sport. Therefore, the information from this study shouldn’t reflect upon young athletes.

There are examples of athletes who have achieved elite status by specializing at an early age. Tiger Woods is such an example. Tiger has won multiple major championships & is considered one of the greatest golfers of all time.

HOWEVER, at the young age of 43, Tiger has already had NINE KNEE & SPINE SURGERIES not to mention his very public personal difficulties that he has had.

Plus, many well-known athletes have played multiple sports at a young age:

  1. Patrick Maholmes
  2. Drew Brees
  3. Odell Beckham, Jr.
  4. Michael Jordan
  5. Aaron Judge
  6. Kyler Murray
  7. Lebron James
  8. Mike Trout
  9. John Elway
  10. Deion Sanders
  11. Bo Jackson
  12. Saquon Barkley
  13. Steph Curry

Here are a few statistics for you to think about…

  1. DELAYING specialization until after puberty (15 – 16-years-old or older) is associated with DECREASED injury risk & a HIGHER likelihood of athletic success
  2. A study of 1200 athletes aged 8 – 18 showed that if an athlete played one sport more hours than their age per week then they were 70% MORE likely to experience a SEVERE INJURY
  3. A study of 481 youth pitchers, ages 9 – 14, over 10 years, found that pitching more than 100 innings/year INCREASED injury risk 3.5x
  4. Sport specialization is associated with overuse injuries, burnout, SOCIAL ISOLATION, & with QUITTING SPORTS ALL TOGETHER at a young age
  5. Early specialization can lead to higher percentages of injury & dropout, which can lead to a SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE & increased risk of being overweight with reduced enjoyment of physical activity in youth

These aren’t numbers or statements we’re throwing out there either. These stats & details come from scientific research AND these are just SOME of the compelling statistics.

Here’s a link to a great resource that covers this topic extensively…

If you’re interested in buying it, here is a link to it on Amazon (we don’t receive any compensation for your purchase)…https://www.amazon.com/dp/0735214484/?coliid=I2S8LGADD7AA6K&colid=2PQX37OD7WT4A&psc=1&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it&pldnSite=1

Increased injury risk? What’s the deal?

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During childhood (especially during growth spurts) the bones, muscles, & tendons lengthen but the muscles don’t mature & strengthen at the same rate.  Because of this, the muscles have to produce up to 30% MORE force to perform the same movements. An early specializer then places all this extra force into the muscle, tendons, bones, and even growth plates…and they do this REPETITIVELY, which is the primary reason it increases their risk of injury. The combination of repetitive stress & decreased muscle maturity/strength can lead to overuse injuries or more severe injuries like an ACL tear, stress fractures, etc.

So why do multi-sport athletes have a better chance of success?

FIRST, participating in multiple sports reduces the repetitive stress placed on the immature tissues reducing the risk of injury. SECOND, performing a wide array of movements forces the body to adapt & become efficient at performing many forms of motion, which in turn can translate to improved movement in an athlete’s sport of choice. Performing a wide array of movements also improves an athlete’s overall coordination. Therefore, being a generalist, NOT a specialist, actually has a protective effect & can increase a child’s chance for athletic success.

HOWEVER, an athlete doesn’t just have to participate in multiple sports if they don’t want to.  Participating in “unstructured free play” (street baseball, backyard football, etc.) is another option & it can also have the same impact as playing multiple sports. Once again, a multitude of movement types is what helps reduce repetitive stress & improve coordination & adaptability in the athlete.

The main message is…

An athlete should be involved in multiple activities that involve a wide array of movement patterns. It’s not that playing one sport is the problem…it’s playing one sport at the EXCLUSION of other sports or activities. This is what leads to the repetitive stress on immature tissues & the decrease in coordination. This combination, along with a lack of rest from an athlete’s main sport, is what creates the problem.

Some recommendations

  1. Limit single sport participation, practice/training/competition, to FEWER hours per week than the athletes’ age
  2. Encourage DIVERSIFIED sports training & participation
  3. Allow the child to have INPUT into what sports they play as well as the training that comes with them
  4. Delay specialization to LATE ADOLESCENCE (15+ years old)
  5. Don’t pressure children into specialization, promote INTRINSIC motivation
  6. Encourage unstructured FREE PLAY…like backyard baseball, street football, pick-up basketball, etc.
  7. Allow 2 – 3 months off PER YEAR, in increments of 1 month, from their particular sport
  8. Limit 1 sport to a max of 5 days/week with AT LEAST 1 day off from ANY organized activity
  9. Children should sleep 7+ hours PER NIGHT
  10. Think about the LONG-TERM health of your child…this is OUR recommendation!!!

Resources

Below is a brochure we created that can be distributed to other parents, schools, teachers, coaches, athletes, etc. Please feel free to print or email the brochure for others to read. It contains much of the same information but provides a few more statistics. The citations of the research articles we used to gather our information are included.

Final Early Sports Spec. Brochure