If you have a kid in sports, you know that’s it a treacherous world out there. There are only a certain number of spots for the best kids and if your child wants to play a popular sport, like basketball, baseball, or swimming, you know that your kid has to be good…not just good, but better.
How did we get here? What happened to the days when you could pick up playing volleyball in high school and still make varsity and get a college scholarship? Now, local clubs are starting as early as 4th grade. Your kids are doomed if they don’t pick their sport early — or are they?
Let’s define early sport specialization, “sports specialization is defined as intense, year-round training in a single sport with the exclusion of other sports” (1). Early would be defined as before puberty, so this is different for girls and boys. For girls, this is usually before 12-13 and for boys, around 14. As you can see, telling a boy to wait to specialize at his sport at 14 might sound like sabotage.
First, let’s be clear. While knowledge of the sport and how it’s played is absolutely necessary to be a higher achiever in the sport, there is no evidence that early specialization (year round intense play) is necessary to be an elite athlete (1). Let me say that louder for the parents in the back – year round sports prior to puberty is not necessary to be an elite athlete. More on this to come later.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about what can go wrong.
Multiple studies have been done on the risks involved in early sport specialization. Common sports that insist on early sport specialization are baseball, gymnastics, and tennis. Overuse injuries are seen in all three. In baseball, for pitchers, the shoulder is a common injury, wrists in gymnastics, and shoulders and elbows in tennis (2).
The position statements of 6 organizations have summarized this issue and at some point, coaches, parents, schools, organizations, and everyone who runs a year round team for young children should take notice.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Society of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Fédération Internationale de Médecine du Sport, and the National Athletic Trainers Association all discourage sport specialization. The International Olympic Committee indicates that it may be acceptable depending on the biomechanics of the sport and sport/life balance. (3).
The risks for early specialization include: burnout, overuse injury, drop out of sports completely, mental stress, and sleep problems (3).
These organizations offer many exceptions to their position in the following sports: diving, swimming, gymnastics, and figure skating. However, you still run the risk of all of the above.
So, what’s good about trying multiple sports?
- Their bodies are challenged with new movements, which can improve their biomechanics, balance, and neuromuscular adaptations.
- They do not feel pressure early on – they can enjoy playing sports for FUN and chances are, they will continue to play sports instead of dropping out.
- They learn about multiple sports which allows them to have a more diverse view of what they want to play as they get older.
So, what’s the alternative? I can hear you now, you have an 8 year old boy who loves baseball and only wants to play baseball for the rest of his life. Or you have a 10 year old girl who tells you soccer is life. Nurture this, let them play, but encourage them to branch out.
These organizations listed above indicate that “late adolescence” is the time if your child wants to specialize in a sport. While there is no consensus what that age is and adolescence can run up until a child is 19, that’s not a solid recommendation. The best advice in the literature is to avoid specialization before the age of 12.
This is not to say that a child cannot play a sport from age 6 on if they enjoy it, every year if they like it, but year round specialization is different.
Here are some options:
- Take time off from the sport, 2-3 months is suggested (3)
- Play multiple sports, many sports complement each other – for example running and soccer both complement swimming
- Get involved with your child’s training and ensure they are getting strength and conditioning, in addition to their sport specific training.
- Let them play their sport every year, but seek out a seasonal team rather than a year round team.
As the parent of 3 kids in sports, this subject has gotten more intense since my daughter started swimming 6 years ago. I have always been a firm believer in having multiple sport athletes, for many of the reasons above. My biggest concern was injury and we’ve had some minor ones, but nothing big – and they have been overuse. At the moment I knew it was an overuse injury (it happened with too much freestyle swimming getting ready for distance championships), we stopped the high volume.
My personal journey with avoiding sport specialization:
Since my 14 year old started swimming at 8, she has also played soccer, basketball, volleyball, and she’s becoming a pretty good runner and is trying out for track this spring. She continues to swim as her constant sport, but she loves being able to branch out. She doesn’t want to specialize and that’s just fine with me.
My 12 year old swimmer has also played soccer, basketball, and volleyball. She isn’t sure which one she wants to stick with, but volleyball is taking a commanding lead – she’s right on track with choosing her sport at the right time.
My 9 year old has played pretty much everything – he swims half the year and he does baseball for the other half. He was in soccer, indoor hockey, and basketball before he decided that swimming and baseball are his loves. He’s also a typical 9 year old and gets a ton of unstructured play outside.
What are your thoughts on sport specialization?
- Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & Labella, C. (2013). Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports health, 5(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738112464626
- 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
- Jayanthi, N. A., Post, E. G., Laury, T. C., & Fabricant, P. D. (2019). Health Consequences of Youth Sport Specialization. Journal of athletic training, 54(10), 1040–1049. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-380-18