Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes
When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization?
Brian T. Feeley,*y MD, Julie Agel,z MA, ATC, and Robert F. LaPrade,§ MD, PhD Investigation performed at the University of California, San Francisco, California, USA, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, USA, and Steadman Philippon Research Institute, Vail, Colorado, USA
What is sport specialization?
Sport Specialization: “intensive year-round training in a single sport to the exclusion of other sports.”
Why could sport specialization be considered detrimental to my youth athlete?
It is possible that sport specialization could lead to overuse injuries and psychological burnout
There is some evidence from research that sport specialization could be a risk factor for injury
For example: one study found that year round training in baseball has lead to an increase in ulnar collateral ligament injuries
How and why do overuse injuries occur?
May be due to muscle and bone immaturity, meaning their bodies at not ready to handle to demands put on them by sport
What should I do if I think my youth athlete has an overuse injury?
Stress fractures are the most common overuse injuries and may be overlooked or considered “growing pains”
Overuse injuries can be treated with: complete rest from sports, physical therapy
Physical therapy can include: examination and correction of mechanics of sport specific movements, strength and flexibility training
Spondylolisthesis and tendinopathy are also common overuse injuries
Won’t early sport specialization make my athlete better and able to compete at a higher level?
There are studies that suggest that LATER specialization (one marker says after the age of 12) actually can create the potential for better athletic achievement
Another study says that the elite athletes studied didn’t start specializing until after age 15, meaning they spent less time in training than their peers
Who should make the decision for an athlete to specialize in one sport?
Coaches may be an influence in a decision to specialize in a single sport. Make sure the decision is in not only the best interest of your athlete but takes into account their desire whether or not to specialize
Examples of later sport specialization:
United States Women’s National Soccer Team:
Alex Morgan (forward)
“She had always been deep into sports, participating in softball, volleyball, basketball and track and field as a child. Soccer didn’t take center stage in her athletic life until that magical run by Team USA 12 years ago.”
“While most stars of Alex’s caliber begin intensive training long before they reach their teenage years, she didn’t get serious about soccer until she was 14. It was then that she finally set softball aside and transferred her considerable gifts from the diamond to the pitch.”
“I knew girls who had taken the leap and had gone to club teams a lot earlier, when they were 10, 11, 12. I just felt like still having fun with soccer and other sports. I didn’t want to take such a big commitment on myself, you know? It was a real big commitment to jump from AYSO to club, so I kind of waited until I knew youth soccer was the sport I wanted to pursue.”
“I wouldn’t say “late bloomer.” I think I was just having fun playing multiple sports. I was always athletic from a young age. I never wanted to narrow it down to one sport. My parents never pressured me into anything, you know? I loved going from soccer to basketball practice to softball to track. I really enjoyed that and I didn’t want to take that next step until I was ready. I’ve seen a lot of girls who were burned out by the time they got to college and I didn’t want to be one of those girls who was sick of what they were doing by the time they were 18 because I was playing competitively since the age of 8. There was no reason to rush and my parents didn’t rush me into anything. Once I was ready, they helped me find the best clubs in southern California to try out for. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I think that was the best for me.”
Abby Wambach (forward) and Morgan Brian (midfield): soccer and basketball, both through high school
“I understand the argument of people being one sport athletes at a young age, but for me and my personality I would get burned out as a young kid playing just one sport,” said Wambach, who focused solely on soccer when she went to the University of Florida and quickly progressed into the national team ranks.
Amy Rodriguez (forward): track, swimming, softball
Lauren Holiday (midfield): track, basketball and baseball
Having that variety is an awesome thing and I would encourage any young athlete or parent not to restrict themselves,” Holiday added. “Doing different things develops different parts of your body. It can help prevent injuries and definitely help prevent burnout.”
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