The Case Against Early Sports SpecializationMar 6, 2018
Aspire to become the next Lebron James or gold medal-winning Olympian? You may believe that specializing in a single sport early in life with intensive, year-round training will lead to enhanced sports skills and the achievement of elite athlete status. However, recent research suggests that those who play multiple sports may become better athletes, have longer careers and suffer fewer injuries than those who specialize early in life.
Sport specialization is most often defined as intensive, year-round training [8+ months/year] in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports. It's considered early when it occurs prior to puberty and adolescence1. There is a recent trend in young athletes specializing in one sport at progressively younger ages. In 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that young athletes should not specialize in a single sport until after puberty2. Participating in multiple sports allows young athletes to utilize different muscle groups and develop neural pathways, which can bring about an enhancement in strength, speed, and other factors that may allow them to become a better athlete. Concurrently, playing multiple sports allows them to avoid the risk of overuse injuries and burnout that may arise from performing repetitive motions using the same muscle groups and by being heavily involved in a singular sport year round.
Many recent studies support delaying early sport specialization in young athletes:
- A 2017-18 study of professional athletes in the National Basketball Association provided evidence that NBA players who participated in multiple sports in high school had longer careers, played in more games, and experienced fewer injuries than those who specialized in basketball early9.
- German researcher, Arne Güllich, studied multiple populations of elite European athletes and frequently found that those who achieved more success tended to play multiple sports until later ages3,4,5. Similarly, multiple other researchers studied elite European athletes, from Swedish tennis players to German Olympians, and also reported that elite athletes specialized in their respective sports later in life, rather than earlier1.
- Multiple studies found that early specialization can lead to overuse injuries, burnout and social isolation1,2,6.
- A 2012 study of boys ages 6-12 found that those who participated in more than one sport scored better in multiple categories than their peers who only participated in one sport. This included strength, speed and agility, cardiovascular endurance, and gross motor coordination2.
- A look at the team rosters for the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots for Super Bowl LI in 2017 shows that, of the 106 players rostered, only 12 were single-sport athletes in high school. This means 94 athletes playing in America's biggest sporting event were multi-sport athletes in their adolescence.
- A 2016 descriptive epidemiological study evaluated the high school sport specialization patterns of current DI athletes and came to the conclusion that early sports specialization is not necessary to become a Division I athlete8
- A 2017 study looked at the effects of early sport specialization on lower extremity injury rates in high school athletes and found that participating athletes who were more highly specialized in a single sport were more likely to sustain a lower extremity injury than those who were not7.
- A 2017 study of professional baseball players revealed that those who specialized in baseball early in life reported more injuries as a professional baseball player than those who did not specialize early 10.
More research is needed in this area to fully understand the risks and benefits, but the literature currently supports delaying early specialization of a sport for young athletes. Among the advantages of encouraging a young athlete to participate in multiple sports is the possibility of becoming a better athlete, enjoying a longer athletic career, and decreasing the risk of injury or burnout. The possible personal growth and life skills that a multi-sport young athlete may develop should be considered as well.
Buckley P, et al. Early single sport-specialization: a survey of 3090 high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. Orthop J Sports Med.2017;5(7): 2325967117703944. doi: 10.1177/2325967117703944
Fransen J, et al. Difference in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6-12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. J Sports Sci. 2012;30(4):379-386. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.642808
Gullich A. International medallists' and non-medallists' developmental sports activities-a matched-pairs analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017;35(23):2281-2288. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1265662
Gullich A, Emrich E. Considering long-term sustainability in the development of world class success. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(suppl 1):S383-97. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2012.706320
Gullich A, Emrich E. Evaluation of the support of young athletes in the elite support system. Eur J Sport Soc. 2006;3(2):85-108
Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257. doi:10.1177/1941738112464626
McGuine T, Post E, Hetzel S, Brooks MA, Trigsted S, Bell D. A prospective study on the effect of sport specialization on lower extremity injury rates in high school athletes. Am J Sports Med. 2017;45(12):2706-2712. doi: 10.1177/0363546517710213
Post E, et al. High school sport specialization patterns of current division I athletes. Sports Health. 2017;9(2):148-153. doi: 10.1177/1941738116675455
Rugg C, Kadoor A, Feeley B, Pandya N. The effects of playing multiple high school sports on national basketball association players' propensity for injury and athletic performance. Am J Sports Med. 2018;46(2):402-408. doi: 10.1177/0363546517738736
Wilhelm A, Choi C, Deitch J. Early sport specialization: effectiveness and risk of injury in professional baseball players. Orthop J Sports Med. 2017;5(9):2325967117728922. doi 10.1177/2325967117728922