Early Sport Specialization Is Killing The Health of Our Kids

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Sports Specialization Is Making Youth Less Athletic

A new study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health which included over 1,500 high school athletes found that athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report a lower extremity injury as compared to those who played multiple sports. It was also found that 60% of athletes that specialized in one sport sustained a new lower extremity injury1.

This study got a lot of publicity because early sport specialization has been a hot topic as of late. Most of the arguments against early sport specialization are from rehab professionals, surgeons, and well-informed strength and sport coaches. The frustration of these professionals is all the push back or lack of understanding that the parents have when they so desperately want their kid to succeed at an early age. So instead of just relying on anecdotal cases, it’s nice to have more legitimate studies that can be brought to the parent’s attention as evidence.

Youth programs started out as an avenue to allow kids to play a sport in an organized environment. This helped kids develop self-esteem, peer socialization, work ethic, and general levels of fitness. It also allowed kids to sample a variety of sports and potentially start developing a passion for some of them. It also allowed time for them to recognize the sport they are best at. These were the days when a sports season lasted somewhere around 4 months before the next season came around and the focus would shift. But in the last decade, youth sports have morphed into highly competitive leagues and year around sports specialization.

If Some is Good Than More Must Be Better, Right?

Unfortunately this is first instinct for a lot of parents and even coaches. At first glance, it seems to make sense right? If you want to get better, than you have to practice and play the game. Seems all well and good until you take a second look and realize how damaging that idea can actually be.

I think everyone can agree that playing a sport puts an immense amount of strain on the human body. As parents and coaches we forget about this because young kids are so resilient and bounce back so quickly. That is until the day they don’t bounce back, and a nagging overuse injury starts forcing them out of competition and practice. Kids are going through growth spurts, bone and body structure is still developing, and they are still developing strength and coordination. All of these are risk factors for developing overuse and repetitive strain injuries.

Image you have a piece of plastic such as a credit card. You fold it once, still good. Fold it back the opposite way, still intact. Keep moving it back and forth repeatedly and eventually it snaps.

An injury is the fastest way to decrease athleticism. Especially when you consider that at such a young age rapid improvements are made in speed, coordination, and athleticism. Miss out on 6 weeks of play due to an injury, you quite possibly missed out on a very important 6 weeks of development.

Why is Playing Multiple Sports So Beneficial?

We already mentioned that sports can help develop self-esteem, socialization, and work ethic. Physically it will improve strength, coordination, power, and adaptability. As previously mentioned, playing one sport year around at such a young age exposes kids to overuse and repetitive injuries at a high rate.

When kids play multiple sports over the course of multiple season it varies the type of stress on the body. Football, basketball, and baseball all have very different demands in sport. As such the strain and wear pattern on the body is different. It’s the same reason you rotate the tires on your car. Change the wear pattern and you increase the likelihood of staying healthy.

How Can Playing Multiple Sports Increase a Kid’s Athleticism?

A study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that physical fitness and gross motor movements were improved in boys aged 6-12 when they played multiple sports versus just one sport2.

Similarly, according to a study in The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, 88% of college athletes participated in more than one sport as a child3. Playing multiple sports exposes the athlete to different kinds of skills, movement patterns, coordination, and dynamic power development. It’s been found that kids who play multiple sports have a larger athletic base of skill to draw from. This means that they have the ability to pick up and learn skills, techniques, tricks, etc much faster than their one sport counterpart.

The problem with playing just one sport is we immediately switch from a youth development model to an elite athlete development model. While it sounds cool, this is a major problem as the physical needs of youth athletes are totally different than elite athletes.

Even high level athletes (Collegiate Division I) have different needs than elite athletes (All-Pro/Olympic caliber). To put this in perspective it’s similar to teaching calculus to a student before they can even do basic addition. The knowledge base is completely different and as a result your, conversations will change drastically. Elite and high level athletes have already developed foundation levels of strength and coordination. Their body has matured enough to withstand a prolonged season and repetitive strain.

I wrote more about how youth athletic development HERE.

With that being said, most elite and high level athletes still find time to recover throughout the year in some way shape or form because they know the negative effects overtraining and overuse have on the body.

Furthermore, they understand that their body will only have a limited window of sustainability when performing at a high level at such a high frequency. It’s why athletes retire. Playing at a high level day in and day out is just not sustainable forever, and especially not at a young age. This is why specialization should be avoided as late as possible. In most scenarios this will be until college or at the very earliest junior and senior year of high school. Some of this may differ depending on sport. For example gymnasts peek at a very young age, however most field and court sports peeking occurs much later, generally in mid to late 20’s (sometimes later).

Playing Multiple Sports is Beneficial To Confidence & Self-Esteem

Kids just want to have fun. Interestingly enough, when a kid is having fun they simultaneously want to get better and win. When the emphasis is placed on year around competition in a highly competitive environment the fun and joy of the game is lost.

Things have gotten so organized that kid’s don’t even know how to free play anymore. I wish I had some evidence or data on this, but if I was to guess, the amount of pick-up games or backyard ballgames being played are much lower than what they had been in generations earlier. Passion for the game starts because the game is fun. We hear stories about elite athletes all the time who retire because they have “lost the love of the game” or was “burnt out”. If this is happening to mature athletes, what are the odds it’s happening to your kids when you treat them the same?

What If My Child Only Likes Playing One Sport?

I would first answer that question with some follow up questions. Does your kid truly only want to play one sport? Or is it you, the parent that thinks they only want to play one sport? Have you asked them?

If they only enjoy or have interest in playing one sport, then there is certainly no reason they have to play multiple sports. The point being made earlier is that year around specialization in a sport at a young age can have very negative side effects with little to no benefit. So if you enjoy playing more than one sport, by all means play a variety of sports at a young age.

However, if your kid only enjoys one sport, or during their Junior or Senior year the child chooses to specialize (not the parent) then understand elite and high level athletes do not compete and play their sport year around. If a mature pro doesn’t play year around, there is no reason why your developing child should. High level completion imposes high levels of demand on the body that is not sustainable year around.

How Does Lifting Weights & Training Contribute To This?

Obviously lifting weights and training programs will impose stress on the human body. However, the purpose of an intelligently designed weight room program is to impose a demand on the body so that it adapts favorably.

The goals, volume, and intensity of this training program will vary depending on what sport season you are in (or offseason/in season if playing one sport). The goal of a training program at a young age should really focus on filling in the gaps of foundational movement and basic levels of strength that your sport or sports may miss.

Enjoying the various seasons and sports will accomplish a lot of this on its own at a very young age. When a training program is implemented correctly it will first address poor movement patterns and the ability to absorb force to make the body more adaptable to stress. It will also start to build foundation levels of strength to make the body more resilient and resistant to overuse injuries. When these foundations are established it creates higher athletic development potential and an environment for the athlete to succeed when they eventually decide to specialize later in their athletic career.


About The Author

Dr. Greg Schaible

Dr. Greg Schaible is a physical therapist and strength coach specializing in athletic performance.  He attended The University of Findlay as a Student Athlete.  As an athlete he competed in both Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field where he earned honors as a 5x Division II All-American and a 6x Division II Academic All-American. In 2013 he completed Graduate School earning his Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT).  Greg is the owner of On Track Physical Therapy and Content Manager for Sports Rehab Expert. In addition to his rehabilitation services, Greg has a passion for sport specific youth athlete training. 

References

Study Indicates Higher Injury Rates for Athletes Who Specialize in One Sport. (2016, November 3). Retrieved from https://www.nfhs.org/articles/study-indicates-higher-injury-rates-for-athletes-who-specialize-in-one-sport/

DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sports Med. 2014; 24(1):3-20

Fransen, J., Pion, J., Vandendriessche, J., Vandorpe, B., Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., & Philippaerts, RM. (2012). Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6‐12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. Journal of Sport Sciences, 30, 379‐386.

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2017-07-10T02:13:57+00:00 By |

16 Comments

  1. Chris O'Connor December 8, 2016 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the article. I have read several similar papers, but my one frustration is that none of them define the term “child”. One study is quoted “A study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that physical fitness and gross motor movements were improved in boys aged 6-12 when they played multiple sports versus just one sport”
    So are you talking about 6 – 12 year olds?
    Or does this apply to 12 – 16 year olds as well?

    What is meant by early specialisation?
    What is early? age 6? age 10? age 14? age 17?

    • Greg Schaible December 11, 2016 at 6:34 pm - Reply

      Hey Chris, great question! It will vary depending on the sport. As some olympic sports such as gymnastics the peak age of the career is much sooner. If we are talking about team sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball, football, etc sampling of sports should at minimum be through age 12 in my opinion. As I eluded to in the article, the kids personal desires play a roll in this as well. If the kid has tried another sport and has given it some time, but doesn’t like it, there is no sense to force them to play. Likewise later in high school around 16/17 what is their goals? Do they have a shot at taking it to college at some level? How much do they enjoy the other sports? I think at this time it is fine to start specializing but playing multiple sports could still benefit them at that time as well. There will certainly be time to specialize in college if they are indeed good enough to get there.

  2. malcolm wallace December 10, 2016 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    ,You need to read other papers re your question of age. From the papers that I have read it is clear that not only should pre adolescents <16/17 enjoy a wide range of sports but also they should not be intensively coached but be encouraged to go out and play "free" from coaches .

  3. Alysia Mae Bedgood December 11, 2016 at 10:27 am - Reply

    What definition of “young age” are you using? In some cases multiple sports could be just as bad or worse than a sing sport because volume increases. Ex: Football QB and Baseball pitcher, Volleyball player who swims. Soccer athlete that runs track. I think the focus needs to be on balancing muscle strengths and overuses, not just the specialization. We run the risk of alienating kids that are passionate about their sport buy not explaining this properly.

    • Greg Schaible December 11, 2016 at 6:40 pm - Reply

      Good point Alysia! Obviously the demands of each sport is different, but there is also a lot of carry over. I think this is where balancing your sport training with properly coached and periodized strength training starts to make a bigger impact to make the body more resilient to stressors of competition. That being said, having a week off in between seasons during the school year can do a lot of good. As coaches, we always consider how important rest periods can be for athletes in games and practices. Often its failed to realize how rest is just as important in long term training.

  4. Stephanie December 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    My concern is if he plays soccer, runs track and plays field hockey it works out to be even more damage to his 6 year old knees. He wants to do them all but they all seem to have the same effect on his knees. Seems like the more he does, the more his knees hurt, so then I am tempted to limit him to the one he is very good at. Can you help me understand better?

    • Greg Schaible December 11, 2016 at 6:54 pm - Reply

      Hi Stephanie, I understand your concern. First its important that these are played in separate seasons and that he is not playing on a travel soccer team the same time he runs track for example. The second consideration is going to be is he going through a growth spurt. This makes the body much more likely to get injured during that time period and subsequent adjustments the body will go through afterwards. Lastly, if possible the sports should have a little more variety (soccer, track, field hockey all involve a lot of continuous running) a sport such as baseball might be a good option. That being said, the kid needs to do what he enjoys. Other things to consider is length, frequency, and intensity of practices. That goes back on the coach but all very important. Having some days of appropriately designed strength training instead of long practice with a lot of running can go a long way as well.

      Hope this helps!

  5. Laurie December 12, 2016 at 11:34 pm - Reply

    As a parent, I have a couple of comments:

    Another aspect to consider is that a lot of youth coaches do not know how to coach young kids. Even at the high school level, there are coaches who do harm to developing kids. There are crash courses for coaching certifications, but the certifications need to be revisited more frequently to check that coaches are practicing what they learned in certifications and are aware of new research. Some of the certified coaches I see do not even practice first aid correctly. And a lot of these certified coaches do not understand the psychological development of children. My husband is the acting president of our soccer club, and these issues drive him (and me) crazy! But, there is a big need of volunteers, and no matter how hard board members work at trying to get around to observe and offer support to as many practices as possible, they can’t fix all of the bad stuff.

    Which brings me to point 2. I saw a statistic that by 2020, 27% of high schools will not be able to offer sports. While club sports filled in the gaps when I was in school 20 years ago, high school athletics still dictated the seasons of play. The fall was for football, cross-country, boys soccer, volleyball, girls golf, girls swim, and girls tennis. The winter was for basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, and boys swim. The spring was for track, baseball, softball, girls soccer, etc. This encouraged kids to play multiple sports. My husband and I currently coach soccer. We have a fall season and a spring season. While we are under US Soccer regulations, we can run practices as early in the year as we would like. Not only that, but we have to compete for our team’s time with volleyball, softball, and even basketball. There are kids playing multiple sports, but they play ALL the sports year round. Basketball, which has typically been a winter sport, requires girls to attend practices and “scrimmages” throughout the fall and spring. Softball requires the same throughout summer, fall, winter, and during the typical season, spring. My daughter does only two sports- she plays soccer in the fall and spring, she and swims in the winter. She takes the summer off to PLAY outside and participate in other fun activities such as water skiing, mountain biking, and paddling. Swimming should actually be a full-year sport for her, with athletes getting three-ish weeks off in March and five or so weeks off in August- September. My point in all of this is that the club sports are “overseen” by US Soccer, US Swimming, US whatever. It seems there needs to be an entity to watch over and dictate when sports are “in-season” so kids can actually choose a sport at a time to work on.

    And finally, parents are fickle. I know from watching our club soccer- some parents request their child to have a certain coach because he or she “pushes” their child so much, but my husband and I sit back and shake our heads because we know the detrimental effects of the bad coaching, both physically and psychologically. We watch as coaches abandon teaching the basics so they can have a winning season with a team of 9 and 10 year-olds. And I have seen those 9 and 10 year-olds act nasty towards another teammate because of big egos that have developed with this style of play. At 9 and 10 years of age.

    • Chris May 8, 2017 at 12:59 pm - Reply

      Laurie, I could not agree with you more. Here in Canada, our coach certification program boasts over 1500 courses and workshops, while many NSOs train but don’t certify their coaches, let alone follow-up to ensure they are offering quality and developmentally appropriate programming. Most of this is due, I think, to a very top-down system that focuses on elite development while leaving very little for club level support.

  6. GrammarNut December 23, 2016 at 4:40 am - Reply

    This is a great article and very informative. One side note – then and than are not interchangeable. When people make these mistakes, they lose credibility.

  7. S. Butler January 18, 2017 at 9:48 am - Reply

    I would be very interested to know what Dr Schaible would say about swimming? My daughter has been swimming for over 4yrs now and is age 12yrs. She has a break for 2 months in the summer and 1 or 2 weeks at Christmas otherwise trains 7hrs a week. She loves it! Is she harming herself?

  8. Jacques January 27, 2017 at 2:56 am - Reply

    Thanks Greg! I have been told the same thing by top level international coaches. More disciplines more skills. They also say it is about all over physical development.
    What sports do you recommend to enhance the athletic development of a child under 10? I understand that sports like judo or wrestling, with the rough and tumble and numerous complicated angles of effort involved, are great to develop overall strength and coordination.
    Are there other “supporting/developing” sports one should consider?

  9. Chris May 8, 2017 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    I think we need to be careful about focusing on sport for a 6 year old. They should be doing only what their bodies are capable of doing and it should be play/games based with emphasis on fun not skill development.

    • Jennifer May 11, 2017 at 1:24 pm - Reply

      We live in a small town so my experience may be different, hopefully so.
      I’ve got 3 boy’s who play sports, but this season was the 1st of tball for my youngest.
      4 years old is when they all started playing only spring seasons.
      Its been 5 years since I’ve had one in tball and it seems a lot has changed! It has gotten so competitive out there that the fun is only expected after a win.
      These young ages should be about learning the game, but most importantly having fun so that they’ll want to return the following season.
      His 1st day of baseball season was a 12 hour day, 5 games competing in a beginning season tournament. I think I lost him that day. They did great made 2 place, but the entire day was torture for EVERYONE.
      I hate that the fun has been taken out of the game. I pulled him from the mid season tournament all day feeling awful for the boys.
      I hope this isn’t happening everywhere. I can only imagine the future of youth sports and all sports if this is the trend!!!!
      That is what someone needs to write a story on!!!!:(
      Brining fun back to the games!

  10. Hannes von Holtz May 15, 2017 at 1:03 am - Reply

    That exactly is why Kids Athletics was developed by the IAAF, where all the different aspects of body movement are practiced and competition takes only place in team efforts. No single winners, only team winners, where each kid in the team has to sprint/run, jump and throw. Age groups are 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12.

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