Young athletes benefit from multi-sport experience
By Randy Martin, MS, CSCS, ACSM EP-C, USAW-L1
Athletes and parents alike face the question of whether or not to specialize in a single sport and the pressure to do so at a young age has never been stronger. Youth sport specialization nationwide continues to trend upward as parents and their young athletes attempt to forge a path to a college scholarship and eventual sport stardom.
Sport specialization can be defined as, “intense, year-round training in a specific sport with the exclusion of other sports at a young age (3,4).” Others define it as simply limiting participation to a single sport on a year-round basis, regardless of training volume (4,7).
The website TrackingFootball.com surveyed draft picks in the 2015 and 2016 NFL drafts and found that 87 and 88.5 percent, respectively, of players selected played in multiple sports in high school. Those are eye-opening percentages. Another eye-opening number is the explosion of youth participating in sports in the United States, which grew from approximately 18 million in 1987 to 60 million in 2008 (3). The reality remains, however, is that precious few achieve the elite level as less than one percent of athletes in the 6 to 17 years of age bracket will reach the professional ranks in basketball, baseball, football, softball or soccer (3,8).
What are the risks to those specializing in a sport?
- Increased chance of overuse injuries from repeating the same physical motion too often (3,4,5,6,8).
- Higher burnout rates and withdrawal from sport sooner due to stress, boredom and lack of enjoyment for the sport (3,4,5,6,8,9).
- Greater rate of being sedentary when reaching adulthood (4,8,9).
- Larger risk of orthopedic knee injuries (4,8,9).
The benefits of being a multi-sport athlete include:
- Higher sports IQ (2,3).
- Greater transfer of skills from sport to sport (5,7).
- More fundamental gross motor skill development, such as hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, running and jumping, hopping and skipping, balancing, hitting, kicking, crawling and throwing (2).
- Increased transfer in fundamental cognitive skills (2).
- Additional education on competition (7).
In addition, early diversification in sport provides the young athlete with valuable physical, cognitive and psycho-social environments and promotes motivation (3).
In most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before puberty are necessary to reach elite status. Parents and coaches must keep in mind that adolescent bodies are not ready to be treated as an adult’s. Early sport diversification has the potential to provide stimuli enabling a child’s body to adapt and develop motor skills that will crossover between sports. By allowing young athletes the opportunities to choose several sports to be passionate about, the risks of specialization are minimized and they have the chance of becoming a more well-rounded athlete.
- American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Intense training and sports specialization in young athletes. Pediatrics. 2000;106:154-157 [PubMed]
- Caruso, T, and NSCA Coaches. Early Sport Specialization Versus Diversification in Youth Athletes. National Strength and Conditioning Association Education
- Ferguson, B, and Stern, PJ. A case of early sports specialization in an adolescent athlete. Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 58(4): 337-383, 2014.
- Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health. 2013;5(3):251-257.
- Jayanthi NA, Pinkham C, Durazo-Arivu R, Dugas L, Luke A. The risks of sports specialization and rapid growth in young athletes. Clin J Sports Med. 2011;21(2):157
- Johnson, J. Overuse injuries in young athletes: Cause and prevention. Strength and Conditioning Journal 30(2): 27-31, 2008.
- Hill G, Simons J. A study of the sport specialization on high school athletics. J Sport Social Iss. 1989;13(1):1-13
- Malina RM. Early sport specialization: roots, effectiveness, risks. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010;9(6):364-371 [PubMed]
- O’Sullivan, J. Is it Wise to Specialize? www.changingthegameproject.com. Monday, January 13, 2014