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Impacts of Early Sport Specialization


In a recent influx of research on early sport specialization, many papers have been drafted detailing its effects. National Leadership Council Member Dr. Joe Donahue shared some of the latest reports from Seth Cheatham, Mia Smucny, and several other professionals. Below is a summary of the impacts of early youth sport specialization.

In today’s society, there is a strong cultural emphasis on elite status as a requirement for athletic success. Whether this status is gained through scholarships or professional participation, it goes consistently in hand with pressuring children towards single sport training. Parents and coaches are looking to fulfill the 10,000 hour practice requirement perpetuated in the media; they are urged towards early age, high-intensity training by the popularized triumphs of Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi. The consequence of such promotion is an increase in early sports specialization.

Early specialization in a single sport has increased tremendously in recent years. Young athletes are participating more in multiple, high-commitment teams of the same sport and are pursuing extra training from specialists. While this intensified training might be expected to produce a higher caliber of athlete, in reality it can be mentally and physically damaging. The repetitive microtrauma of specialization leaves athletes vulnerable to overuse injury and burnout as well as can deter athletes from long-term participation in a sport. Alternatively, multi-sport participation has shown to build strong athletic foundations and increase chances of gaining elite status (whilst maintaining enjoyment) in one sport.

It is critical for parents and coaches to promote a regimen of diverse athletic activity that accommodates a young athlete’s interests. When physiological and skeletal development are still occuring, the practice of repetitive movements will increase risk of injury. Additionally, serious athletic time commitments can be socially isolating and psychologically stunting. Young athletes should instead immerse themselves in a variety of sports to attain long-term success. A focus on comprehensive, physical skills rather than specifics as well as avoidance of excessive time commitments can prevent burnout and injury and create a healthier lifestyle for the athlete.

Below are some key statistics around early sport specialization:

  • only 0.2% to 0.5% of high school athletes ever make it to the professional level
  • up to 54% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse
  • young athletes who are highly specialized are 36% more likely to suffer a serious overuse injury than those who are not
  • focus on one sport can slow critical social development and lead to stunted psychosocial growth
  • 88% of Division 1 athletes at one US university had participated in 2 to 3 sports as children and nearly 70% delayed sports specialization until the age of 12 or older
  • 97% of professional athletes believed being a multi-sport athlete was beneficial to their success
  • current college athletes experience depression rates that are twice as high as those of former, graduated college athletes

If interested in learning more about a specific study on early sport specialization, you can reach out to PCA’s Director of External Relations at Casey Miller at her email, Thank you again to Dr. Joe Donahue for sharing these articles and to The Nueva School summer volunteer Aliya George for summarizing this research!

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