Looking at some extreme examples of young prodigies who for the most part specialized in a single sport, one might conclude this is the best way to develop a successful athlete. However, that is not an opinion shared by all experts. In fact, many argue that sport specialization is a significant problem to young athletes. The issue is a complicated one with many questions. The most important center around what are the long-term physical and psychological effects on young athletes, as well on exactly how critical early specialization is to athletic greatness. The truth is that there is absolutely no correlation between focusing on a specific sport at a young age and future success. Research actually shows the opposite and that the most successful athletes are those who develop a well-rounded athletic base. In fact, most sports training professionals feel that sports specialization should be delayed until athletes reach their mid-teens.
In a 2014 study conducted by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, two serious health concerns were cited with regards to early sport specialization in young athletes. One is the alarming rise in youth sport overuse injuries and the second is youth sports burnout. Both have the potential to inflict long-term damage to young competitors.
Year-round participation in a single sport is wreaking physical havoc on young athlete’s bodies. Some studies suggest that up to 50% of youth sport injuries can be attributed to overuse! Unlike injuries that occur as a result of accidents which can happen in any sport or physical activity, overuse injuries tend to occur because of poor mechanics reinforced in training, year-round specialization, or a combination of both. Poor technique and overuse usually results in injuries to tendons, bones, or joints that can have long-term consequences for a youth competitor who still has growth ahead.
The most common upper-body overuse injuries include torn rotator cuffs (shoulder) or “Little League Elbow” which are most frequently seen in sports with repeated throwing or swinging motions such as youth baseball or tennis. Most youth baseball leagues already implement some sort pitch counts that limit the number of pitches a player can throw depending on their age with mandatory rest periods. However if young players are playing in multiple leagues or travel teams, young pitchers can easily bypass these restrictions and put serious stress or strain on their bodies. In Major League Baseball, there has been a significant rise in the need for “Tommy John Surgery” which in medial terms is a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. A 2002 study found that pitchers who throw a high volume of pitches are at higher risk for this injury. So if the greatest athletes in baseball are at risk for overuse injuries, one can only imagine how much more damaging this could be to young athletes whose growing bodies are not yet conditioned to handle the strain of such a workload.
In the lower-body, the injuries that tend to appear most commonly are tendonitis, torn knee ligaments, shin splints, or Achilles tendon damage. Knee injuries are the most frequent type of overuse damage with movements such as cutting, jumping, running, and quickly changing direction leaving young athletes susceptible to problems even in sports with limited physical contact.
Because of the dramatic rise of overuse injuries, parents need to closely monitor any pain or discomfort young athletes are experiencing, even if it is minor. Young competitors, especially those who have a passion for their sport, often attempt to play through pain or ignore the warning signs which end up resulting in larger problems down the line. Kids need to be educated to listen to what their body is telling them and understand that missing a few games or practices is more acceptable than missing an entire season. If a child begins to exhibit signs of overuse injury, try following the R.I.C.E. method (Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation) as a means to reverse and prevent progression of the problem.
Should your athlete choose to engage in a year-round sport, experts recommend that they be given at least two-three months off a year to reduce the likelihood of developing overuse-related injuries.
Probably a bigger concern than the physical overuse problems that can develop and are easier to identify is the danger of youth sports burnout, which is often not as easy to perceive in a young athlete. It is a growing problem in youth sports and one that must be addressed, especially when studies suggest that up to 70% of children who quit a sport before the age of 13 are thought to be victims of this affliction.
Youth sports burnout is defined as a condition of psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical withdrawal from sport participation as a direct result of chronic stress. Sadly, many young athletes disengage from sport participation because of frustrating experiences in the sport which can include pressure to perform, judgment from others, boredom and/or lack of joy. The push to have children specialize in a sport early can often result in undue pressure to succeed that is beyond a young athlete’s ability to cope with.
Larry Lauer, an expert on the role of parents in youth sports, champions the idea of an “optimal push”. By this he means that parents should provide some, but not too much structure. In other words, help them to find and pursue their passions, not choose one for them. Furthermore, parents should give young athletes the choice to play or not play a sport, but once they commit, make sure they follow through on their commitments and the essential values needed for success. Lauer also warns against unrealistic parental expectations that can lead to depression and poor self-esteem in young athletes who fail to live up to the lofty goals. While it should not need to be said, the truth is that parents must focus on a child’s complete overall development and not just their athletic development. This goal can get lost though when a child shows an aptitude for a given sport and the usual tendency is to go “all-in” in making the dream for stardom a reality.
Research suggests that a combination of parent education, a healthy life balance, enabling young athletes to have input into practice and competitive situations, and the use of positive reinforcement can be critical in keeping children interested in their sport of choice. Above all, it is imperative to help children and young athletes to learn to enjoy their sport participation. That means if they want to play multiple sports, or even if they want to focus on a single sport, be positive and supportive, and give them space to decide what they enjoy doing.
Beyond the negative effects and stress that year-round emphasis of a single sport can have on a young athlete’s body, most experts feel that playing multiple sports allows youth athletes to develop a full spectrum of athletic abilities. For instance, baseball is tremendous for developing hand-eye coordination, while soccer helps players build endurance, and basketball is exceptional for building balance and explosiveness. Furthermore, studies conclude that superior athletic performance at a young age does not always serve as an accurate predictor of success at a later age. It is also a good idea for young athletes to gain experience in both team (basketball, baseball, soccer, etc) and individual sports (tennis, wrestling, golf, etc), as each has different lessons to teach about competition, teamwork, discipline, focus, and commitment. In this way, by playing several different sports, a young athlete becomes not only more well-rounded and skilled, but better educated and a more complete athlete.
Wherever one falls on the issue of sport specialization, there are always exceptions to the rule, especially in the case of sports prodigies.