Early sports specialization is the commitment to a single sport at an early age. It often requires year-round participation in that sport, leaving no time for other activities. While there are a handful of sports that require this early concentration (such as gymnastics or figure skating), there is growing evidence that diversification, playing multiple sports during growth and development, is a better choice – not only for injury-prevention but also for future participation in the sport.
Our team recommends avoiding single-sport specialization until after puberty around 15 or 16 years of age. There are several reasons why.
For most sports, peak performance occurs in young adulthood, after physical and psychological growth has completed. Therefore, early participation and specialization are not requirements for success. One example: of the 322 athletes invited to the 2015 NFL scouting combine, 87% played multiple sports in high school. Only 13% played football alone. The NBA’s Stephen Curry grew up playing a wide variety of sports including soccer, football, baseball and basketball.
Multi-sport athletes are also less likely to experience some negative aspects of single-sport specialization. Overuse injuries are caused by the combination of growing bones with the limited rest and repetitive motions in single sport training. As many as 50% of sports injuries are caused by overuse (National Federation of High School Sports Survey). Burnout, often causing early dropout from sports, is less common in multi-sport athletes as well.
This concept of developing the “whole” athlete with foundational physical preparedness and methodical skill development is not new. Long term athlete development (LTAD) programs were first discussed in the early 1990s to develop physical literacy and to groom elite athletes. In 2014, the United States Olympic Committee and other national governing bodies created the American Development model. It consists of 5 stages:
Stage 1: Discover, Learn, and Play (ages 0-12)
Stage 2: Develop and challenge (ages 10-16)
Stage 3: Train and Compete (ages 13-19)
Stage 4: Excel for High Performance or Participate and Succeed (ages > or equal to 15)
Stage 5: Mentor and thrive (for life)
To adopt this model, parents should emphasize fun in the first stage. Find activities that children enjoy and support them in those. Offer them a variety of experiences to seek a balance of organized activities and free play.
As the child moves into the next stage, ensure periods of rest from activities are scheduled. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1- 2 days of rest per week and 1 month off from each sport at least three times throughout the year. Free play and other sports can easily be integrated in “off” cycles, but the rest allows physical and psychological recovery from a particular sport.
As young athletes move into specialized training in adolescence, parents should pay close attention to their physical, emotional and nutritional health. The sacrifices of sports should be outweighed by the benefits to the child’s overall health and well-being.
Rather than increasing pressure on young athletes to win games and scholarships, we want to recognize the holistic benefits of sports. There are many experiences in sports that develop lifelong psychological and social skills. Sports can:
Build positive self-esteem
Encourage teamwork and sportsmanship
Develop leadership skills
Provide practice coping with failure and success
By approaching sports with an emphasis on overall health, athletes can enjoy sports throughout their lives, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.
Dr. Jane S. Chung completed her medical degree at St. George’s School of Medicine. She completed her internship and pediatric residency training at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Children’s Hospital. She completed a fellowship in Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Case Medical Center, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. She is board-certified in Pediatric Medicine and Sports Medicine. She specializes in concussion management, return-to-play decisions and non-operative management of musculoskeletal injuries in young and growing athletes. As a board certified pediatrician with fellowship training in Sports Medicine, Dr. Chung provides comprehensive care for athletes with a particular interest in problems affecting female athletes.