Health is a Competitive Advantage

By Hannah Hill

Youth Sports Athletes

Youth Sports Safety Awareness Week

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association has declared this week (the third full week of October) as National Youth Sports Specialization Awareness Week. The goal of this week is to raise awareness of what youth sports specialization really is, provide practical information for parents, athletes and coaches, and to help change the culture of youth sports – because health is the ultimate competitive advantage. Join us this week to learn more about what youth sports specialization is, why many youth athletes (and parents) are motivated to specialize early, myths about specialization, and recommendations on how youth athletes can enjoy participating in sports safely.

Throughout October 17 – 23, 2021, we will share the latest research about youth sports specialization, quotes from athletes and truth moment statistics. Sport specialization is defined as intensive year-round participation in a single sport, at the exclusion of others and is now seen in kids as young as 4 years old. The motivation for youth athletes to specialization early is typically driven by a desire to make a certain team, earn a scholarship or play at an elite level. Many parents and athletes alike don’t realize that their child is, in fact, specialized. With the rigorous training schedules, skills camps, practices and tournaments that are common in youth sports today, children are simply not provided enough time to rest and recover. This can lead to social isolation, poor academic performance, increased anxiety and stress, chronic fatigue, decreased family time and free play, increased risk of acute and overuse injury and athlete burnout.

Michele LaBotz, MD, FAAP, CAQSM, Clinical Associate Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, explained, “when athletes start to specialize, their training and their relationship to the sport itself changes.” LaBotz said that specialization can effect an athletes’ health and overall risk of injury, sleep and mental well being. Kids who specialize in one sport tend to train their body harder but don’t typically schedule in recovery and rest. She added “You need some recovery time each week, 2 days off organized sports, and you need a longer period of recovery time after your season, best if that is at least 4 weeks.” Parents must also be in tune to their child’s personality and how they react to pressure. Some kids thrive under it, but for others, it causes them to feel a great deal of pressure and takes away from the fun of the game. Overall, LaBotz stresses the importance of building a well-rounded athlete first before building the next sport specific phenomenon. “You need to build the athlete, in general, athleticism, before you build the soccer player, or the baseball player. Because if you have the movement fundamentals, it’s going to be easier for you to pick up the sport-specific skills with needing lower volumes of sport-specific training, it’s going to make you more resilient to development of injury. So develop the athlete before you develop the sport-specificity,” LaBotz explained.

David Bell, PhD, ATC, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is one of the leading researchers in youth sports specialization. Bell described the youth sports specialization trend as a cultural shift away from playing sports at school with an emphasis on fitness, teamwork and participation. Today, there is a “need to specialize” mentality in nearly all youth sports, with the end goal of scholarships and elite-level play. “This change has come at the expense of the physical and emotional health of the young athlete,” Bell said at the press conference. Bell went on to talk about the competitive advantage of health that is so often compromised when an athlete specializes. “I think also importantly, that remember that staying healthy is actually important for your long-term, but it’s also your child’s- it’s a competitive advantage if your child can stay healthy through their young years before they even- no one wants to have a surgery before you even get to high school,” Bell said.

NATA has written an Official Statement of Sport Specialization Recommendations for Adolescent and Youth Athletes to address the physical, mental, psychosocial and public health concerns for youth athletes who specialize. These recommendations have been endorsed by some of the leading voices in sports medicine levels including the NATA Intercollegiate Council for Sports Medicine, The National Basketball Athletic Trainers’ Association, the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society, the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society and the Professional Soccer Athletic Trainers’ Society. With this statement, athletic trainers at the collegiate and professional levels collectively provide recommendations to foster a healthy sporting experience for youth athletes and shed some perspective on the motivation to specialization to advance and earn scholarships. The recommendations include the following. Click here for a downloadable PDF of these recommendations or view the shareable video on Facebook

  1. Delay specializing in a single sport as long as possible. Adolescent and youth athletes should strive to participate, or sample, a variety of sports. This recommendation supports general physical fitness, athleticism and reduces injury risk in athletes.
  2. Play on one team at a time. Adolescent and youth athletes should not participate or train year-round in a single sport, while competing in other organized sports simultaneously. Total volume of organized sport participation per season is an important risk factor for injury.
  3. Participate in a single sport for less than eight months per year. Adolescent and youth athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year.
  4. Curb hours of participation per week to no more than age in years. Adolescent and youth athletes should not participate in organized sport and/or activity more hours per week than their age. For example a 12-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 12 hours per week of organized sport.
  5. Allow for two days of rest per week. Adolescent and youth athletes should have a minimum of two days off per week from organized training and competition. Athletes should not participate in other organized team sports, competitions and/or training on rest and recovery days.
  6. Engage in rest and recovery time from organized sport participation during the year. Adolescent and youth athletes should spend time away from organized sport and/or activity at the end of each competitive season. This allows for both physical and mental recovery, promotes health and well-being and minimizes injury risk and burnout/dropout.


Athletic trainers play a critical role in helping youth athletes have a healthy and safe sporting experience. Athletic trainers help educate parents, athletes and coaches about the risks of overuse injuries, importance of rest and proper nutrition and hydration. Additionally, athletic trainers are health care providers on site. They can address improper techniques to reduce the risk of injury, or address a small injury to prevent it from becoming something more.

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