Early sports specialization is when a young athlete chooses a single sport to practice and play exclusively. This usually occurs prior to elementary or middle school, is nearly year-round, and is an attempt to gain early skills. The myth behind early sports specialization is that early exposure will guarantee expertise and a better chance to earn a coveted spot on a competitive high school team, a scholarship to college, a pro contract or an Olympic bid.
What are the risks of early sports specialization?
Intense, repeated “deliberate practice” in a single sport can cause many problems in young athletes:
- Overuse injuries. This is the most common risk of repetitive activity. These injuries can range from stress fractures, growth plate injuries, osteochondral bone injuries to effort-related blood clots. Some of these injuries will require surgery and many will be season or career-ending.
- Short Stature and Delayed Growth. This is often seen in sports such as gymnastics and figure skating where there is a competitive incentive to remain small and to delay maturation. These behaviors can lead to osteoporosis, stress fractures and disordered eating behaviors such as in the Female Athlete Triad.
- Over-dependence and Social Isolation. Kids are naturally social beings and desire friendships and free play. When the majority of a child’s free time is spent on deliberate practice and training, they are denied the ability to develop proper social and problem solving skills with their peers which can result in abnormal behaviors in adulthood.
- Burnout is a result of stress, over-training and a loss of control by the athlete. This occurs when athletes no longer have a desire to train and compete even when they are enjoying athletic success. Younger children will often have vague, ill-defined injuries that sound a lot like depression and stress, such as stomach aches, fatigue, poor concentration, apathy or insomnia.
Does early sports specialization work?
Early sports specialization does seem to be important in sports where success is partially judged by the artistry of the athlete, such as with gymnastics, diving, dance and figure skating. If kids are participating to be fit, improve their skills or simply enjoy themselves, there is no need for early sports specialization.
If your child is involved in early sports specialization, it’s important to have at least two months off each year from the sport to recover physically and emotionally. Be sure that your child is being coached in a positive, instructive and age-appropriate environment, and be aware of the risks, such as overuse injury and burnout.
Many elite, internationally successful athletes actually specialized later in life, between the ages of 14-16 years old. Athletes who tried multiple sports and held off on early specialization actually performed better than athletes who specialized early. Learning fundamentals like running, kicking or throwing are more important before the age of 9 years old. By late middle school and high school, children should be ready to learn how to train more seriously and play for success. Intense training is necessary for all athletes to achieve expertise, but timing is important.
If you are concerned about your child athlete, find a healthcare team that will support his or her athletic goals without compromising long-term health. For more information about the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine program, or to request an appointment, visit www.nationwidechildrens.org/sports-medicine. And, each month, our sports medicine experts deliver the latest news and information right to your inbox. Sign up for this free e-newsletter.