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Early Sports Specialization: A Physical Therapist’s View

Early sports specialization is one of the leading causes of different overuse injuries. Often times, parents feel pressure to funnel their children into one sport at an early age. The pressure can come from coaches, the desire to obtain a college scholarship, or from other sources. There is a misunderstanding that there is not a direct correlation with focusing on one sport at young age, and developing the skills and knowledge necessary to become elite in that sport. While there are always exceptions, the majority of athletes who specialize in one sport at a young age, are not the ones we see playing sports at the division 1 or professional levels. So how exactly did this misconception form? For starters it comes down to the theory that if some practice is good, more must be better. Or, parents often believe that if their child is not out practicing a skill component of their sport, they will fall behind their competition.

Here is a brief list of facts on the detrimental effects of early sport specialization on a youth athlete

1. In a study at Loyola University, it was determined that youth athletes who participated in their sport more hours per week than their age, were 70% more likely to obtain an overuse injury then their peers. For example, a 12 year old who spends 13 hours per week playing/practicing tennis is 70% more likely to obtain an overuse injury than other 12 year olds.

2. Another study at Ohio State University showed that youth athletes who specialize in one sport at an early age are more likely to have lower levels of physical activity as adults than their peers. The reasons for this are speculated to be due to burnout and a dislike of physical activity as the athlete ages, or once the athlete has stopped participating in their one sport, they do not have the familiarity or desire to pick up a new athletic or physical hobby.

3. College coaches actually look for athletes who played multiple sports. This debunks the myth that early specialization is the best path to obtain a division 1 scholarship, or even play a sport in college. We will touch on the reasons college coaches like multiple sport athletes later in this article.

4. The psychological effects of early sport specialization are well documented as well. Increased stress levels, decreased motivation and an overall decreased level of enthusiasm for sports and physical activity are some of the psychological effects of early sport specialization. Athletes who specialize early often suffer from burnout and view practices or games as a job more so than an activity they are looking forward to.

Benefits of participating in multiple sports

1. A well rounded athlete is created- By participating in multiple sports, a young athlete will develop the motor control/coordination necessary to compete in the variety of sports they are participating in. For example an athlete who has a desire to play baseball at the college level or further can benefit from playing a sport like basketball or tennis to help develop speed, agility and lateral movement. A football player can benefit from the power development that is created in participating in track and field events like sprinting or shot put.

2. Smarter athletes- Athletes who participate in different sports are placed in situations that they would not experience by playing only one sport. A quarterback who needs to make quick decisions by identifying a defense before the ball is snapped can benefit by playing point guard on a basketball team where similar decisions need to be made. This also allows athletes to learn how to observe tendencies and patterns of their opponents that can be applied in other sports.

3. Decreased risk of overuse injuries- A young athlete’s body is still growing and developing. Abnormal and repetitive stresses placed on joints, bones and muscles from specializing in a certain sport can lead to overuse injuries. When you play multiple sports, not only is the body given a break from these abnormal stresses, the body is being challenged in a different way. This can lead to better overall strength, power, speed, agility and flexibility. All of these factors will help decrease the athletes risk of having an injury as they age, because the body will be prepared to handle and adapt the increased intensity of training and playing a sport at a higher level.

4. Develops a child who learns to love sports and physical activity- As we touched on earlier, athletes who play only one sport often stop participating in physical activity once they are no longer participating in that one sport. If a child loves playing sports, because they enjoy the competition and they enjoy being active, they will find a way to carry that feeling into adulthood, even if they can’t play the one sport the excelled at in high school or college. This can lead to a longer, healthier and happier life.

5. College coaches prefer well rounded athletes- A recent survey of college athletes showed that 88% of all college athletes played more than one sport growing up. So if you are working towards that dream of being one of the few lucky and hard-working individuals who get the opportunity to play your favorite sport at the college level, you may want to consider making yourself a more well-rounded athlete by playing multiple sports. Is there a time to start focusing on one specific sport?

Sports Focus vs Sports Specialization, A Physical Therapist’s View

Focusing on a sport is different than early sport specialization. As a young athlete ages and becomes more physically and mentally mature, the time may come to start focusing on developing the skills necessary to play their desired sport at a higher level. This time may be different depending on each individual case, so there is no golden rule when to make this decision. It’s important to remember that even if you decide to stop playing other sports competitively to focus on one specific sport, you should still continue to cross train in order to develop your overall athletic ability and still keep your risk of overuse or overtraining injuries low.

About the author: Dr. Kevin Prue PT, DPT, CSCS is a graduate of Duke University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. He is the president and director of Prue Physical Therapy & Sports Performance located in Cary NC. He specializes sports and orthopedic physical therapy, sports performance training and injury prevention for youth and recreational athletes.

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