Sports Specialization: Are We Hurting our Kids?


Healthy Living - November 3, 2015
JP Stowe, ATC 
Over the last 15 years, the youth sports culture has changed dramatically as parents and coaches are trying to develop their kids into the next big star. Many parents feel pressure or are required by sports leagues and coaches to have their child participate year round in a sport, but what most don’t realize is that sports specialization is hurting our kids! Physicians and athletic trainers are seeing a ten to twenty fold increase in youth sports injuries, some of which can end a child’s athletic career before it even starts. With the likes of travel leagues, AAU, indoor soccer, and indoor baseball, year round play in one sport is an all too common practice that needs to stop.
Here are some concerning facts about what specializing in one sport and playing year round can do at a young age:
  1. Children who specialize in one sport account for over 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes. Our bodies hate doing the same thing over and over again and break down much faster when we do so.
  2. Children who specialize in one sport have a higher incidence of adult inactivity and obesity. Those first to commit are usually the first ones to quit, with lifetime consequences.
  3. Children who specialize early in one sport are 70%-93% more likely to be injured than children who play multiple sports. In a survey of 221 Division 1 NCAA coaches, 93%of them prefer athletes who play multiple sports in high school due to the burnout rate and higher risk of injuries in athletes who play only one.
  4. Children who specialize in a sport early are at a greater risk of burnout due to stress, decreased motivation, and lack of enjoyment.
  5. Early sport specialization in females is linked to a greater likelihood of anterior knee pain and traumatic knee injuries.
Here are some research based reasons why multi-sport participation is crucial at a young age:
  1. Better Overall Skills and Ability: Research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor skill and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills to other sports, increased motivation, ownership of the sports experience, and confidence.  In a study from 2012 published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, young male athletes who participated in multiple sports were found to be more physically fit, have better gross motor coordination, more explosive strength, and better speed and agility than those who specialized in a single sport.
  2. Smarter, More Creative Players: Multi-sport participation at the youngest ages yields better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity. These are all qualities that coaches of high level teams look for.
  3. Most College Athletes Come From a Multi-Sport Background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child. The athletes felt that playing multiple sports helped their bodies develop better by learning and practicing different skills associated with each sport. For instance, soccer teaches endurance and foot skills, basketball teaches hand-eye coordination and jumping mechanics, and football teaches strength and speed. By learning multiple skills over multiple sports, the multi-sport athletes are better developed, all-around athletes.
What you can do as parents with young children interested in sports:
  • Children under the age of twelve should go through a sampling period where multiple sports and activities are tested.  If your child isn’t interested in a certain sport, that’s okay. Let them participate in something they are excited about.
  • It doesn’t need to be a 24/7 schedule of games and tournaments.  If so, find another league or group to participate in. Early development of motor skills and learning the game is most important through practice and fun activities. Sports should be fun to learn, not a chore.
  • Specialization should not begin until age 17 or 18, when most children are skeletally mature and ready for that next step.
  • Take time off from sports! Children’s bodies can take a beating over a sports season.  Rather than jumping into the next season as soon as one ends, take a break. Rest and relax and let their bodies recover and heal up. Professional athletes do it all the time, why not our children?
By doing these things we can keep our kids healthy, interested in sports, and excited about the future. Abby Wambach, an Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and multi-sport athlete herself in high school, said it best; “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. Having the ability to play basketball for a bit throughout the year gave me the chance to crave soccer, to miss it."

  1. Tom Farrey, “Early Positive Experiences: What is Age Appropriate?” Roundtable Summary from the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society “Project Play” Initiative
  1. Brooke De Lench, “Early Sports Specialization: Does it Lead to Long Term Problems?”
  2. Franzen J, Pion J, et. al. 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 Sports Sciences, DOI:10.1080/02640414.2011.642808 (available online ahead of print: 03 Jan 2012).
  3. Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 2012;20(10). DOI: 10.1177/1941738112464626 (published October 25, 2012 ahead of print).