The Pitfalls of Early Sports Specialization

Published on: 03/31/2017
With average temperatures in the 80’s, South Florida is a prime location for year round sports participation. The majority of our youth participate in their primary sport for both school and club leagues bringing average practice times upwards of 14 hours per week year round. This repeated exposure to the same sport is thought to enhance the athletic abilities of the young athlete for the particular sport that they are involved in. The theory; "the more your play the better you will be" or "practice makes perfect" are commonly used amongst parents and coaches. The problem with this theory is that research on sports specialization tells us the exact opposite.

Early sports specialization, choosing to participate in one sport prior to late puberty, is associated with negative consequences such as earlier sports dropout rates, increased risk of overuse injuries, decreased athleticism, and social isolation. On the contrary, athletes who choose to specialize after puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries and play sports longer than those who specialize early. Recent research has shown us similar findings that professional athletes report participation in a wide range of youth sports and trended towards not specializing until after age 16. Given the evidence against early sports specialization the following age based guidelines are suggested:

Pre-school/Elementary Age

  • Focus on fundamental movement skills, foundational strength and multisport participation
  • Keep training fun


Middle School Age

  • Continue multisport participation and begin to narrow down to a primary sport


High School Age (Late puberty)

  • Begin to focus on primary sport with cross training in other sports during off season
  • Discourage year round playing of same sport

References:
  1. Brenner J S, Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. Pediatrics 2007;119;1242.
  2. Baker J. Early Specialization in Youth Sport: a requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, June 2003
  3. WARD, P., HODGES, N.J., STARKES, J.L., &WILLIAMS, A.M. (2002). The road to excellence in soccer: A quasi-longitudinal approach to deliberate practice. Manuscript submitted for publication.
  4. Bompa T. From Childhood to Champion Athlete. Toronto, Canada: VeritasPublishing, Inc; 1995


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