At What Age Should An Athlete Specialize In A Sport?
It’s one of the most highly debated topics in the world of athletic development and sports performance today; at what age should a child specialize in a single sport? With the large spike in early sport specialization programs that have children competing year round in their specialized sport of choice at younger and younger ages, the real question remains, does early sport specialization actually increase the likelihood of a child “going pro” or making it to an elite echelon of sport? The answer isn’t that simple.
What parents and coaches of youth athletes SHOULD be asking themselves is at what cost does early sport specialization actually affect their child’s gross motor skill development, overall athleticism and relationship with being a physically active human being? While mounds of research are starting to pile up in regards to the effectiveness of the youth early sport specialization model, one thing remains to be true, both the body of evidence and decades of anecdotal research from fitness and healthcare professionals are both pointing in a polar opposite direction as the way the Americanized cultural trends around youth sport are moving.
Instead of chastising the use of the early sport specialization model, which has shown to increase injury rates, decrease athletic development and play a role in develop dysfunctional relationships with physicality for the long term, this article will objectively breakdown the stages of athletic development, along with recommendations for each of the four major age brackets in terms of physical activity, sporting participation, training, and beyond in order to maximize athletic development, minimize otherwise controllable risks of injuries and burnout while building the best chance for longevity with sport and recreation.
The 3 Primary Characteristics of Physical Preparation
While the age ranges that will be covered are, of course, generalized recommendations, unique differences and variation between children in these brackets are to be expected based on genetics, gender, onset of puberty, social environment, physical exposures and many other interplaying variables. It’s not realistic to expect every child to progress at the same rates or in the same trajectory, as youth development is not a cookie cutter approach, but these recommendations will cover a vast majority of the children falling within each age range.
But before you shrug off these recommendations as every coach and parent is likely to do based on your proximity bias to your child or athlete, remember, the data points to your child NOT being an outlier on the spectrum, but rather within the normalized majority. Before we jump into the detailed physical activity and sporting recommendations for each age rage, the below chart will give you a good visual on what activities and how “training” should look across the athlete developmental spectrum.
RED – (GPP) General Physical Preparedness – General fitness is developed. Wide range of movements need to be experienced. Competitive actions of sport are introduced, but minimal technique or tactics of a sport is given.
BLUE – (DPP) Dynamic Physical Preparedness – Dynamic components are emphasized. These are the generalizable qualities which are necessary for sport. Qualities such as speed, movement, coordination, strength, etc are emphasized. For example: Jumps (continuous, single, and in game or sport)
ORANGE – (SP) Skill Preparedness – Developing technique and tactics specific to sport. Exercise selection becomes more specific to the demand of sport as well as the energy system related to sport.
The 4 Phases of Physical & Athletic Development
Just as every newborn child goes through a predictable neuro-developmental sequence with milestone progressions in movement ability, function and gross/fine motor skills, older children follow the same type of physical trajectory for the advancement of foundational movement abilities and athletic development, as well.
While unique year by year progressions are made across the spectrum of 0-18 years of age (and are highly dependent on the sliding variables as mentioned above), many of these advancements of skills and physical maturity can be grouped together based off of the overall progression towards a more terminal degree of athletic development potentiation.
These groupings are broken down into the four major phases of physical and athletic development that will guide our recommendations for each of these age brackets according to the bio-psycho-social-physical model of athletic development. Keeping these principles and guidelines in mind for each of the four stages of physical and athletic development, here are the physical activity, development and sport specific recommendations based on each age bracket according to the science, along with decades of anecdotal evidence and professional observation.
Age 0-5 Exploratory Free Play Development
Early on in a child’s development, there needs to be a huge emphasis placed on exploratory free play. At this particular age where novelty is found in nearly every activity throughout a day, there must be maximal facilitation towards movement exploration, unique diversification and overall creativity and imagination. Experiential play can be achieved through exploring new environments, or the addition of novel stimuli like toys, play structures or group based non-structured free play. Allowing organic play and creativity at this age is highly advantageous, as new skill sets, habits and motor learning pathways are literally forming on a daily basis.
At no point should children in the 0-5 age demographic ever be pigeon holed into any organized competitive sport, sport specialization, structured training or coaching at this particular time in the youth developmental sequence. We simply recommend that no structured team or individual sport be implemented into a child’s physical experiences at this time due to the risk of delaying gross motor development and exposures to eclectic environments, positions, activities and overall play. With the rapid rate of both physical growth along with mental and neurological development at this stage in a child’s life, we must facilitate as much organic play and experience as possible, not limit their exposures to organized sport or activities.
Before we scare off parents from playing with sporting “tools” such as balls, bats, sticks etc, we must appreciate the difference between play and sport. Play can be centered around experiencing new positions, skills and tools in a organic and non-threatening environment, as opposed to a more directed form of activity that limits freedom of the mind and body. We recommend that children in the age demographic of 0-5 perform fun activities which may include, but are not limited to swinging the wiffleball bat/hitting a baseball off a tee, catching or throwing a variety of different balls in all shapes and sizes, kick the ball with their feet, climb, crawl, roll, spin, tumble, chase, etc. The possibilities here are truly endless as again, novelty and maximizing diverse exposures to as many environments and situations as possible is the overriding goal.
It is worth reiterating that this first stage in physical development should be solely focused on having fun and experiencing new things, period. Even as children start to rapidly develop in terms of movement and motor skill acquisition, along with brain function, social skills, emotional well being, there should truly be no official coaching needs to take place in order to maximize physical development at this stage. Step back, facilitate play, and more than anything, the kids be kids and explore their bodies, environments and challenges for themselves. This is how we will begin to make a dent in the current challenges that our youth are facing today at extraordinary rates including daily sedentary behaviors, increasing obesity rates and an overall reduction in health and wellness.
Ages 5-12 Introduction To Youth Sport Participation
This is the age range where many parents, coaches, and well-intended people start to go wrong with youth athlete development. Much of the same activities that were encouraged in 0-5 still remain important in the age bracket. Having fun still needs to remain the primary emphasis of physical activity and athletic development. As children start to participate in organize sports and activities, we must realize that the most effective coaching at this age demographic and level of physical development tend to pick micro-activities or skills within the chosen sport itself that plays a role in teaching and developing movements and skills without the actual sport competition being the focus. This stage of development must also encourage a fun environment and let the naturally competitive nature of the children take place, but remain encouraging and supportive throughout the entire process which should be focused solely on development.
In addition to trialing a variety of organized sports (yes, that’s means them ALL), children should enjoy playing pick-up games with their friends, continue free play on a daily basis and preserve many of the organic activity skill sets and habits which they formed in the 0-5 age range. Self-learning and trial and error involved with this age demographic will be more beneficial than any type of organized sport at this particular stage, as many children will have increased rates of motor learning and skill acquisition utilizing a block based practice scenario, not a force fed competitive rep counting environment that is notoriously mis-used at this age by parents, coaches and trainers.
A wide variety of sports should be trialed so the child can not only find which they are best at, but more importantly what they enjoy to do improving their natural gravitation towards being physically active and having a positive relationship with physicality. Some encouragement may be needed to continue exploring many diverse sports and/or activities, but encouragement should not get to the point of force feeding sports or activities to the child against their will. If you do a good job of keeping an activity fun, exciting and new, it should not take much convincing for the child to join in. And if they struggle to enjoy participation of an activity, this stage of physical development is all about test-driving them all, so allow them to move on and continue to gain exposures to as many sports, recreation activities and play scenarios as possible.
It’s important to note that sports do not need to be the only emphasis in this age group. Kids can develop general fitness and athletic qualities by playing tag, jumping rope, balancing games, hop scotch, climbing on a jungle gym, obstacle courses, etc. These type of activities should almost look and feel like a well-run physical education class, as was once popular throughout the k-12 education systems, but in recent years has faded in our educational systems. Ideally these traits would all be emphasized in a gym class, but that seems to be less and less of a concern in some schools unfortunately (which is a topic for another day).
Normal movements we want to be encouraging are coordination biased first. Learn/teach a variety of skipping, hopping, and running skills. Coordination in sport will come from playing the sport via practices and pick-up games. The more movements the child is exposed at an early age, the more movement experiences they have to draw from when it’s time to learn the skills necessary for sport. As children continue to develop, their neural plasticity also continues to absorb stimuli and new information like a sponge, so being able to allow eclectic environments and activities for data collection is always a good thing for long term development via graded exposures.
Other things we can emphasize with this age group is mirroring someone else’s movement and reaction/timing games. This is one of the reasons why knowing a variety of “tag” games are useful. Towards the middle and end of this age bracket we can start to encourage some strength and conditioning development. However, it should not look or feel like your high school, college, or pro athletes! Instead, you would emphasize all the activities we already mentioned, while mixing in or introducing some foundational bodyweight exercises improving coordination, balance, agility, strength, stamina and overall movement abilities. Very few children at this age are going to actually have an interest in weightlifting, nor should they. So there is truly no need to expose them to an overly advanced or elaborate strength and conditioning program, nor would this be advantageous for their overall athletic development at this age in the first place. Performing a couple bodyweight exercise variations and eventually progressing to simple loading tools (if appropriate based on technique) around 10-12 years old.
Towards the end of this stage we can gradually expose the child to the 6 foundational movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry). This would be desirable for future purposes, but certainly not an absolute or completely necessary at this time. Again, at this age not every child thinks “training” is fun. So if it is included, the sessions need to be short. Pick 3-5 exercises, keep the sets to 3 – 4 and reps between 10 and 15 in order to teach loaded movement as a fun and teachable skill, not a punishment.
Ages 12-18 Sport Specific Participation & Specialization
Aside from gymnastics and a few other outlying sports, very rarely do sports require early specialization to reach your full athletic and sport specific potential. So during the early portion of this age bracket from 12-18 years old, a variety of sports should still be played in order to optimize the athletic development potential of a child.
The major mistake I see parents, coaches, and kids make during this stage is allowing their kids to play multiple sports at once and not paying attention to the seasons. For example, their child may be playing AAU basketball while running track. This type of volume (especially two sports which are very leg dominate) is a recipe for injury. Injury is the fastest way to lose athleticism or miss out on potential athletic development during a time when athletic qualities progress very quickly in this age bracket, so we must place keeping our children pain and injury free at the forefront of our focus for sport involvement, training and beyond.
If we start to supplement playing a sport with any activity, that activity should be a well-designed general strength and conditioning program. Nothing fancy needs to take place here, just learning the basic 6 foundational movement patterns and gradually increasing the load over time. As the athlete nears age 15+ and demonstrated proficiency in the lift, we can start to lower the rep ranges and increase the weight to train for more maximal force output, as the skills of movement should have been achieved in the phases before and after based on a foundational well rounded physical development.
As a general rule of thumb, the athlete should be able to display proficiency of the lift over 3 sets x 10 reps, based on some older science, but science none the less. Then move to heavier loads 3 – 4 sets x 5 – 8 reps. I see way to many kids at this age group performing 1RM testing. Competency and capacity of the lift needs to be developed first in the 5 – 10 rep range. Then progressed into 4 – 5 sets x 3 reps while continuing accessory work in the 8 – 10 rep range would be more advantageous for the athlete at this time than performing 1RM testing. There are clearly increased risks of moving at close to maximal absolute strength loads at early ages, which again goes against our number one focus of keeping our youth athletes healthy so they can continue to develop on a linear normalized trajectory.
Once foundational levels of strength are developed. We can start to include a low volume (3 – 5 sets x 3 – 5 reps), technique driven plyometric program as well. The plyometric exercises do not need to be fancy or highly advanced for this age range. These plyos should always start bilateral with emphasis on controlling the landing. You can perform single vertical jump variations (most useful to coach technique of landing/force absorption) as well as continuous vertical jumps. A box jump to an acceptable height may also be warranted. As the athlete displays proficiency with these you could progress to single leg jumps as well as bounding variations.
As mentioned, early on in this stage the emphasis should still be on multiple sports and free play in pick-up games. However, throughout this age bracket there will be a mixture of sport specificity included. Gradually exposing the athlete to the more tactical and technique aspects of the sport. Which as a general rule of thumb, by age 17+ the child specializes in one team sport (if the athlete desired to do so). There may be circumstances where an athlete can specialize in a single sport sooner, however keep in mind that this is not true for the majority or athletes, but rather a small percentage of outliers.
If single sport specialization does occur before the age of 17, it’s imperative that a well structured movement based strength and conditioning program serves as the “secondary sport” exposing the athletes not only to the sport specific skills of their chosen sport, but more importantly to the positions and activities that their sport lacks.
Age 18+ Peak Competitive Athletic Development
At this point in an athlete’s athletic development, many elite athletes will indeed be specialized in one sport, but this certainly is not a must, especially as a senior in high school. In fact, many scholarship earning collegiate athletes have played 2 or 3 sports in high school and gone on to be very successful in college and even into professional sport. Some collegiate coaches admit to prefer scouting players who have played multiple sports throughout high school, again due largely to the eclectic skill sets which they develop from competing in multiple disciplines over the course of a calendar year. Some athletes even choose to play multiple sports in college and do so successfully, though this is extremely rare.
However, at this point in time if we refer back to the chart at the start of this article, the emphasis starts turning toward training specific qualities of one particular sport after the age of 18. Depending on the demands of the sport you play, the training will be geared to maximize those qualities as it relates to the energy system which is utilized in sport, as you are more dependent on the motor skill sets and habits that should have been developed previously in earlier stages of athletic development.
So, if the goal is to reach maximal capabilities in one particular sport, then specific specialization is not just needed in strength training, but also tactically and technically in sport specific skills or practices. This again is the stage where more overall training economy and volume can be tolerated if a well rounded foundational of physical capacity was previously developed. As the field/court sport specific training gears up linearly along with more sport specific strength and conditioning, the resiliency of these athletes are tested. At 18+ years of age, this is a contributing factor to sports being terminated, either through injury, burnout or an inability to progress sport skills in a competitive manner.
Though there have been trends in collegiate and professional sport in attempts to reverse engineer the normalized youth developmental sequence, many times these tactics are extremely hard to re-ingrain, again pointing to the importance of moving through each and every stage of physical and athletic development in a timely manner in order to maximize transferable function and skills at every age in order to eventually utilize the foundational skills when you need them the most, your peak competitive athletic development age bracket. As it’s been said, you simply cannot fake the foundations.
So… Should Your Child Early Sport Specialize?
As parents, coaches and professionals in the fitness and sports performance industries, deciding what is best for your athlete in terms of their sport participation or training can be extremely confusing and misguided. If you or your child is in a dilemma in regards to early sport specialization, the implementation of sport specific training, or is struggling to stay healthy and fresh to compete meaningfully in their sport/s of choice, step back ask yourself two questions, while trying to answer honestly.
- What age is the child? (this should be the easy one)
- What is their true training age? (when did they truly start training with purpose)
These two questions will help guide your decision process in order to make an educated decision on your child’s next steps in order to make sure they are indeed successful no matter their chosen physical endeavor or sport.
Though these four major categories of physical development hold true for a vast majority of children, there will always be outliers. You can certainly have a 17 year old high school athlete who has not been exposed to general physical preparedness. As such, how you train them in sport and in the weight room will be very different than someone who has a solid foundation with exposure to multiple sports and movements.
A lack of physical preparedness is no one’s fault in particular, but rather a wide spread problem that spans our culture and society as a whole. Currently, children are not as physically prepared or active as they once were. But lets remember, this is not the child’s fault, it’s a product of the environment they were raised in so they are not at blame. We need to stop looking at the effect and blaming the outcome. Instead we should start looking at the cause, and play your role in facilitating an improved outcome.
The purpose of this timeline, in which this article and it’s age brackets were centered on, is to allow you to better play your role and share the information with another parent, a youth coach, a personal trainer, or a strength coach so we can start making a positive impact to start affecting the overall development of our children across the board. How kids progress through this timeline is very dependent on their experiences. Be aware of the kid’s general readiness and where they currently are at, and embrace the process. In closing, if you’re ever at doubt about next steps for your child or athlete, just remember… let kids be kids.
About The Authors
Dr. Greg Schaible and Dr. John Rusin are strength and rehabilitation experts specializing in athletic performance, injury prevention and pain-free training. Greg is the owner of On Track Physical Therapy and the Content Manager for Sports Rehab Expert. In addition to his rehabilitation services, Greg has a passion for sport specific youth athlete training. Dr. Rusin is an internationally recognized performance expert who has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes in his Functional Hypertrophy Training model.