Helping kids of all ages to live a more active life through FUNctional movement.
By: Michèle Delfino, Physiotherapist
Early sport specialization can be defined as “intense year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age” (2).
According to studies, at this point in time, it is still difficult to pinpoint a specific age to define “early” (2). On the other side of the coin is sports diversification; the “participation in a variety of sports and activities through which an athlete develops multilateral physical, social, and psychological skills” (7).
What are the Disadvantages of Early Sport Specialization?
The potential for injury increases as the intensity level and training volume increases. This supports the need for adequate recovery for youth sport athletes (6). Recovery for a youth athlete does not mean taking a child out of all activity. Adequate recovery could include remaining physically active during a break from that single sport (known as active recovery).
Athletes who specialize in one sport early tend to place repetitive stress on certain body parts (ie: baseball pitchers’ shoulder); it is important to provide rest from these repetitive movements from time to time.
If an athlete experiences unexpected long-term decreases in performance without evidence of injury, this can be termed staleness and may be a result of overtraining or reduced motivation. This is a common occurrence for those who specialize at an early age. It is important for parents and strength and conditioning coaches to understand and be able to identify symptoms of overtraining. Further, this may help to reduce the long-term effects of overtraining on a young athlete’s body and mind.
Early specialization has shown to be not only physically difficult but also mentally difficult. Athletic burnout can be an unfortunate effect of early specialization in one sport. It can be defined as “physical and emotional exhaustion from the psychological and physiological demands of the athlete’s sport,” (5).
Burnout can become so severe that it can cause withdrawal or dropout from the activities that were previously enjoyable to the athlete, which may occur long before the child has reached the peak of their potential. Additionally, with the decrease in performance and the increase in injury, there is often depression resulting in withdrawal from the sport and team activities. This takes a huge toll on the self-identity of the athlete as they no longer have a true sense of self without their sport.
Sport diversification can be thought of as playing a variety of sports, frequently. This method exposes children to a multitude of sports with a focus on playing instead of practicing. This method provides an environment that may nurture a genuine love for a sport so that intrinsic motivation can persist. Since researchers examining early sport specialization have found that early specialization is not an essential component of elite athletic development (3), we suggest diversifying the sports your athletes are exposed to, particularly before the age of 12.
Sport diversification supports the fact that physical and cognitive abilities may develop quicker via playing multiple sports because of a potential crossover effect. It also helps develop physical literacy, which carries over into elite athleticism. For example, instead of only developing hand-eye coordination as it pertains to hitting and throwing in baseball, a child playing baseball and soccer can also develop foot-eye coordination, footwork, and running mechanics. It’s a win-win-win scenario!
Michael Jordan: pro basketball and pro baseball player
Clara Hughes: Olympic cyclist and speed skater
Tom Brady: pro football and pro baseball
Junior DosSantos: MMA fighter who didn’t start training until age 21 – UFC heavyweight title in 2011
Matt Anderson:: volleyball player who started playing at age 15 – 2008 Men’s Pan-American Volleyball Cup Champion, Team USA 2012 Summer Olympic Games
1. Difiori, JP, Benjamin, H, Brenner, J, Gregory, A, Jayanthi, N, Landry, GL, and Luke, A. Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 24(1):3-20, 2014.
2. Ferguson, B, and Stern, PJ. A case of early sports specialization in an adolescent athlete. Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 58(4): 337-383, 2014.
3. Hensch, LP. Specialization or diversification in youth sport? Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators 19(5):21-27, 2006.
4. Johnson, J. Overuse injuries in young athletes: Cause and prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal 30(2): 27-31, 2008.
5. Kutz, M, and Secrest, M. Contributing factors to overtraining in the adolescent multi-season/sport athlete. Strength and Conditioning Journal 31(3): 37-42, 2009.
6. Oliver, JL, Lloyd, RS, and Meyers, RW. Training elite child athletes: Promoting welfare and well-being. Strength and Conditioning Journal 33(4): 73-79, 2011.
7. Wiersma, LD. Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science 12(1): 13-22, 2000.