What is sport specialization?
Playing sports as a child used to mean there was a good chance you played several sports throughout the year. This may include soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track and field in the spring. However, today, many kids are not so diversified. Instead, they are choosing a single sport early in life and participating in it all year long. This year-round training and participation in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports is known as sport specialization.1
The popularity of sport specialization has increased as youth sports participation has evolved from child-driven, recreational free play for enjoyment to adult-driven, highly structured, deliberate practice devoted to sports-specific skill development. The influence of adults on youth sports is seen in a survey of elite young athletes which found that parents were the strongest influence on the initiation of a sport, while coaches were the strongest influence on their decision to perform intense training.1
What are the risks of sport specialization?
There are multiple risks associated with sport specialization with the major risks including increased rates of overuse injuries, increased psychological stress, and quitting sports at an early age, or “burnout.”2 An overuse injury is caused by damage to bone, muscle, ligament, or tendon due to repetitive stress without allowing time for the body to heal. Half of all sports medicine injuries in children and teens are caused by overuse! Children who specialize in a single sport year round are at increased risk for overuse injuries due to their growing bones that are less resilient to stress and by not recognizing the symptoms of overuse including muscle aches and soreness, swelling, and pain with exercise or activity.4 In addition, children who participate in a single sport largely driven by their parents or coaches, rather than internally motivated, are more likely to increase their stress levels leading to symptoms such as decreased appetite, upset stomach, and sleep disturbances.
How can my child avoid the negative effects of sport specialization?
The benefits of participation in sport are clear including development of leadership skills, discipline, and self-confidence. The key is for a child to play smarter and not harder. It is recommended that children avoid specializing in one sport before puberty, which is approximately 14 years old in girls and 16 years old in boys.3 Parents should encourage “sport sampling” in which their child participates in multiple sports as they age in order to develop essential fundamental motor skills and determine those sports that they enjoy the most. This will allow sport participation to return to being child-driven which will decrease their level of stress and likelihood of burnout prior to college. As a child participates in a sport it is important that they perform with the proper “mechanics” associated with each movement required throughout play. A physical or occupational therapist such as those at Children’s Therapy Corner possess the skillset and training to analyze the mechanics children use for various sport activities. These therapists may also treat any injuries associated with participation in sport. As the winter sport season approaches please remember these points on sport specialization and remember that the key is supporting children in becoming well-rounded athletes who can enjoy physical activity for a lifetime.
Andrew Harrington PT, DPT
1 Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sport Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health. 2013; 5(3): 251-257. Accessed September 10, 2016.
2 Risks of Youth Sports Specialization. Move Forward American Physical Therapy Association website. Updated May 6, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2016.
3 Preventing Overuse Injuries. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Updated November 21, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2016.
4 Many kids are overdoing it when it comes to sports, and that’s dangerous. The Washington Post website. Updated September 5, 2016. Accessed September 10, 2016.