Every day, millions of kids throughout the United States acquire important skills, learn valuable lessons, and improve their health by playing sports. Researchers have shown that kids who play sports perform better in school, have lower rates of depression, substance use, and obesity, and grow up to be more active, productive adults than kids who do not play sports. While most children gain these benefits by playing multiple sports throughout the year, a growing number of parents are opting to enroll their children in a single sport – a phenomenon known as early sport specialization.
Shifting Goals Lead to Specialization
Parents of young athletes have specific goals in mind when they register their kids for sports. A recent survey completed at HSS asked parents with kids who play sports about their goals for sports participation. Interestingly, the researchers found that improved physical and mental health, fun and enjoyment, maintaining or achieving a healthy weight, and improved social skills were the most common goals of these parents. Similarly, young athletes have repeatedly identified spending time with friends, becoming physically fit, and being part of a team as their top reasons for playing sports.
Some parents have different goals for their kids though, such as developing sport-specific skills, securing roster spots on elite-level teams, receiving college scholarships, and signing professional contracts. To achieve these goals, children often become single sport specialists – participating in intensive training or competition in a single sport for more than eight months per year while excluding other sports and free play before twelve years of age. Even though early sport specialization may help to achieve these goals, the practice has been shown to have many negative outcomes.
The Downside of Specialization
Currently, about 25% of all young athletes in the United States meet the criteria for early sport specialization. Even though these kids meet the recommendations for daily physical activity, the rigorous training that accompanies early specialization can lead to an increased risk of injury and high rates of burnout.
For example, repetitive activities like throwing and jumping can stress bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons in growing children and lead to a variety of overuse injuries such as stress fractures, ligament damage, and tendonitis. Additionally, young athletes who specialize in a single sport at any early age can suffer from high levels of anxiety, fear of failure, low self-esteem, and poor performance that causes them to experience chronic stress and ultimately withdraw from sport participation.
Calls for Change
The issue of early sport specialization has become a significant public health concern in the United States. In response, medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine have issued position statements to help raise awareness of the issue.
Additionally, a panel of experts from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine recently published a consensus statement, highlighting the lack of evidence that young children benefit from early sport specialization. The panel noted that children who specialize early “are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity" and recommended multisport play as an alternative to specialization.
In 2019, the National Athletic Trainer’s Association released an official statement with recommendations to reduce the risk of injury due to early sport specialization that was endorsed by five professional sports athletic training societies – football, hockey, soccer, basketball, and baseball – along with the Intercollegiate Council for Sports Medicine. Together, these powerful statements underscore the seriousness of this issue and serve as the foundation for corrective action.
Practical Strategies to Address Specialization
Decisions about early specialization are often made by parents based on recommendations from coaches, sports administrators, and parents of other specialized athletes. This feedback often overshadows recommendations for multisport participation from sports medicine experts despite compelling evidence about the dangers of early specialization. The allure of competitive success, scholarships, awards, and contracts that some parents believe can only come with specialization often supersedes the long-term health benefits that come with playing multiple sports.
Despite the overwhelming pressure placed on parents and children to specialize in a single sport, there are five practical strategies parents can use to help reduce the negative impact of early sport specialization:
1. Limit the amount of time spent playing a single sport per year.
Young athletes should not play a single sport for more than eight months per year. Children should be encouraged to play different sports over the course of a year, limiting their risk of overuse injury and providing them with opportunities to explore new forms of physical activity. The Healthy Sport Index – a novel tool developed by the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program in partnership with Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) -- identifies the relative benefits and risks of participating in the ten most popular high school sports for boys and girls and provides recommendations for complementary and alternative athletic activities.
2. Limit the number of teams per season.
Young athletes should only participate in one organized sport per season and play on only one team during each season. The training volume that comes with playing on multiple teams per season is a key injury risk factor.
3. Limit training load.
Young athletes should not participate in organized sports for more than five days per week and should not train or compete for more hours per week than their age. For example, a ten-year-old athlete should be limited to ten hours of sports participation per week and spend at least two days per week away from training and competition for primary sport.
4. Encourage rest and recovery from sports participation.
Young athletes should discontinue sports participation for some time at the end of each sports season. This temporary break from training and competition can help to minimize the risk of injury and burnout and by reducing physical and mental stress.
5. Delay single sport specialization until after puberty.
Young athletes should not specialize in a single sport before the age of twelve and should be encouraged to participate in multiple sports throughout adolescence. As children’s bodies change throughout their teenage years, exposure to a variety of athletic activities can help to reduce the risk of overuse injury and increase the chances they will remain physically active throughout their lives.
Parents often feel that early sport specialization is the best chance their children have to succeed as athletes. But the definition of success that parents use influences the choices they make for their children. The evidence suggests that multisport participation is better for children than early specialization. Let’s keep this in mind when defining athletic success for children and avoid single sport participation at early ages.