YOUTH SPORT SPECIALIZATION
Give your youth athlete a key advantage – their health. Kids who play a variety of sports tend to have fewer injuries, are more competitive, play sports longer and stay active longer in life. Health is a competitive advantage.
YOUTH SPORTS SPECIALIZATION
Playing sports is perhaps one of the most memorable and rewarding activities for youth to be involved in. From the child’s perspective, they get to do something fun and play with their friends. In addition to the fun, kids learn determination, teamwork and good sportsmanship while honing physical skills and laying a foundation for an active lifestyle. Countless kids (and parents) pour everything they have into becoming the best in their sport and have dreams of playing at elite levels. Sports specialization is a family investment of both time and money. Motivated by potential, youth athletes who specialize will often simultaneously play on the select and school team, play back-to-back seasons during the year, sign up for private training session to finesse their skills, and play “up” for a competitive advantage in reaching their goals.
As children continue to progress in the world of sports and start reaching their dreams, it is important that their health and safety remain the number one priority. This can be a challenge, especially when the pressure to perform is high. The enticement of playing at elite levels, the allure of a scholarship, or simply the fear of missing out on the fun and relationships that sports provide can cause parents and athletes alike to unknowingly compromise the child’s health. The negative health effects of sport specialization are attributed to stacked schedules, rigorous training loads and limited recovery.
What is youth sports specialization?
Simply put, youth sports specialization is when a youth athlete plays one sport at the exclusion of other sports. 1 More specifically, youth sports specialization can be defined as “year round training (greater than 8 months per year), choosing a single main sport, and/or quitting all other sports to focus on one sport.”2 Youth sports specialization, also referred to as early or pediatric sports specialization, is typically characterized by:
- High volumes of training (hours/week and months/year)
- Inadequate rest
- Year-round, single-sport training
- Decreased age-appropriate play
- Participating on multiple teams of the same sport 1,2
Sports specialization is more common in individual sports, like gymnastics, tennis, dance, swimming and diving, or highly technical positions in team sports, such as pitcher in baseball. 3,4
risks of youth sports specialization
Many parents and coaches may not see an immediate issue with early specialization in sport, especially when the child is adamant and focused on playing one sport. However, there is lack of scientific evidence to support the notion that early specialization leads to long term athletic success. What is astounding is the growing body of research related to the risks of sport specialization, because of this it is important for athletes and parents to carefully consider the safest way to participate in sports. Early specialization can lead to a number of physical and mental concerns for the athlete.
Overuse injuries are common in specialized youth athletes and account for approximately 50% of sports-related injuries.1,5 Overuse injuries are microtrauma to muscles, tendons or bone caused by excessive sports training, inadequate rest and muscle weakness and imbalances, training errors and improper technique .5 Common overuse injuries include stress fractures, tennis elbow, shoulder tendinopathy and shin splints. Highly specialized youth athletes are nearly twice more likely to sustain an overuse injury than their peers.1 Furthermore, multisport athletes who do not get enough rest between activities or who participate in two or more sports that emphasize the same body part are also at a higher risk for overuse injuries than those in multiple sports with different emphases.5 An example of this would be a baseball pitcher who is also attending private tennis lessons when he is done with baseball practice. Although they are different sports, the athlete uses his shoulder in both sports. This type of multisport participation does not allow for adequate recover and increases the risk of injury to the athlete’s shoulder. In addition to being painful, potentially requiring surgery and resulting in time away from the game they love, overuse injuries can have long-term effects on the athlete’s health and activity levels. In fact, 1 in 10 athletes who suffer an injury will leave the game due to the injury or fear of reinjury. 1
Early specialization is also associated with nutritional and sleep inadequacies, social isolation, compromised growth and psychical maturation and burnout.5 Burnout is a response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery. Many athletes experiencing burnout report feeling trapped and overwhelmed by playing sports. Youth athletes may push through overtraining and potential burnout to continue with a demanding schedule in order to feel a part of the team, maintain their starting position, earn a scholarship or because they feel they cannot let their parents down. Burnout can affect the athlete on and off the field and may lead to dropping out of the sport. Each year, approximately 35% of youth athletes quit sports and by the time kids are 15, approximately 70-80% have stopped playing sports all together.6
PLAY IT SAFE: YOUTH SPORT SPECIALIZATION SAFETY RECOMMENDATIONS
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association supports the following YOUTH SPORTS SPECIALIZATION SAFETY RECOMMENDATIONS as they relate to the health and well-being of adolescent and young athletes.
- Delay Specializing in a Single Sport as Long as Possible: Sport specialization is often described as participating and/or training for a single sport year-round. Adolescent and young athletes should strive to participate, or sample, a variety of sports. This recommendation supports general physical fitness, athleticism, and reduces injury risk in athletes. (Learn more about cross training through sports sampling.)
- Play on One Team at a Time: Adolescent and young athletes should participate in one organized sport per season. Many adolescent and young athletes 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.
- Participate in a Single Sport for NO more than 8 Months Per Year: Adolescent and young athletes should not play a single sport more than eight months per year.
- Engage in Sports No More Hours/Week than Age in Years: Adolescent and young athletes should not participate in organized sport and/or activity more hours per week than their age (i.e., a 12-year-old athlete should not participate in more than 12 hours per week of organized sport).
- Two Days of Rest Per Week: Adolescent and young athletes should have a minimum of 2 days per week off from organized training and competition. Athletes should not participate in other organized team sports, competitions, and/or training on rest and recovery days. (Learn more about how athletes should rest and recover.)
- Rest and Recovery Time from Organized Sport Participation: Adolescent and young 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.
These recommendations have also been endorsed leading voices in sports medicine at the collegiate and professional levels, including:
- NATA Intercollegiate Council for Sports Medicine
- National Basketball Athletic Trainers’ Association
- Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society
- Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society
- Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society
- Professional Soccer Athletic Trainers Society
The Athletic Trainer’s Role in Youth Sports Specialization
Athletic trainers play a critical role in reducing risks related to youth sports specialization. Athletic trainers are experts in on site emergency care for injuries that happen during games or practices, as well as follow up treatment and rehabilitation. The number one priority of an athletic trainer is the health and safety of their patient. Athletic trainers serve as the day-to-day advocate for the youth athletes at their school or organization. This unique perspective in health care allows the athletic trainer to notice the first signs and symptoms of injury and intervene before a small problem becomes a bigger one. Perhaps one of the most important responsibilities of the athletic trainer is the knowledge and ability to help make these appropriate referrals. Athletic trainers are able to recognize and refer potential mental health concerns related to the pressure to perform and athlete burnout. At the top of an athletic trainers mind is injury prevention. Athletic trainers work closely with coaches, athletes, parents and other community organizations to develop and implement training programs that adhere to sports medicine best practices, monitor training load, advocate for rest, and promote proper hydration and nutrition – all aimed at preventing injury and improving overall health and performance.
Many youth sport organizations do not provide full time athletic trainers, but would benefit from their knowledge and expertise. Some youth sport organizations have started to provide an athletic trainer for tournaments or competition, but simply do not have the funds or structure to employ a full time athletic trainer. Athletic trainers can provide important sports safety education for coaches, parents and athletes, while providing on site health care for practices and games.
Want to learn more?
- If you represent a youth sports organization or recreational center and are interested in hosting an educational event for parents in your community email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. If you are looking to employ an athletic trainer, visit the NATA Career Center or Go4Ellis for more information.
- Learn more about the education, skillset and value of an athletic trainer.
- Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest information about youth sports safety and tips for keeping your athlete safe, healthy and in the game.
- For additional information about youth sports specialization, visit STOP Sports Injuries, provided by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) designed to keep kids in the game for life.
- The Risk of Overuse Injuries (pdf)
- Avoiding Baseball Related Injuries (pdf)
- Hamstring Injuries (pdf)
- Athlete Burnout & Mental Health (pdf)
- Knee Pain (pdf)
- Shin Splints & Stress Fractures (pdf)
- Sport Specialization and Risk of Overuse Injuries: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. David R. Bell, Eric G. Post, Kevin Biese, Curtis Bay, Tamara Valovich McLeod. Pediatrics Sep 2018, 142 (3)e20180657; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2018-0657. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/3/e20180657
- Myer, G. D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J. P., Faigenbaum, A. D., Kiefer, A. W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L. J. (2015). Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes? Sports Health, 7(5), 437 442. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738115598747
- Feeley, B. T., Agel, J., & LaPrade, R. F. (2016). When Is It Too Early for Single Sport Specialization? The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 234–241. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546515576899
- Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, et al. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes?. Sports Health. 2015;7(5):437–442. doi:10.1177/1941738115598747
- Tamara C. Valovich McLeod, Laura C. Decoster, Keith J. Loud, Lyle J. Micheli, J. Terry Parker, Michelle A. Sandrey, and Christopher White (2011) National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Prevention of Pediatric Overuse Injuries. Journal of Athletic Training: Mar/Apr 2011, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 206-220. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-46.2.206
- Merkel DL. Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open Access J Sports Med. 2013;4:151–160. Published 2013 May 31. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S33556 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3871410/