Youth and Sports Specialization

By Dr. Greg Schaible

Sports Specialization Is Making Youth Less Athletic

A new study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health which included over 1,500 high school athletes found that athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report a lower extremity injury as compared to those who played multiple sports. It was also found that 60% of athletes that specialized in one sport sustained a new lower extremity injury1.

This study got a lot of publicity because early sport specialization has been a hot topic as of late. Most of the arguments against early sport specialization are from rehab professionals, surgeons, and well-informed strength and sport coaches. The frustration of these professionals is all the push back or lack of understanding that the parents have when they so desperately want their kid to succeed at an early age. So instead of just relying on anecdotal cases, it’s nice to have more legitimate studies that can be brought to the parent’s attention as evidence.

Youth programs started out as an avenue to allow kids to play a sport in an organized environment. This helped kids develop self-esteem, peer socialization, work ethic, and general levels of fitness. It also allowed kids to sample a variety of sports and potentially start developing a passion for some of them. It also allowed time for them to recognize the sport they are best at. These were the days when a sports season lasted somewhere around 4 months before the next season came around and the focus would shift. But in the last decade, youth sports have morphed into highly competitive leagues and year around sports specialization.

If Some is Good Than More Must Be Better, Right?

Unfortunately this is first instinct for a lot of parents and even coaches. At first glance, it seems to make sense right? If you want to get better, than you have to practice and play the game. Seems all well and good until you take a second look and realize how damaging that idea can actually be.

I think everyone can agree that playing a sport puts an immense amount of strain on the human body. As parents and coaches we forget about this because young kids are so resilient and bounce back so quickly. That is until the day they don’t bounce back, and a nagging overuse injury starts forcing them out of competition and practice. Kids are going through growth spurts, bone and body structure is still developing, and they are still developing strength and coordination. All of these are risk factors for developing overuse and repetitive strain injuries.

Image you have a piece of plastic such as a credit card. You fold it once, still good. Fold it back the opposite way, still intact. Keep moving it back and forth repeatedly and eventually it snaps.

An injury is the fastest way to decrease athleticism. Especially when you consider that at such a young age rapid improvements are made in speed, coordination, and athleticism. Miss out on 6 weeks of play due to an injury, you quite possibly missed out on a very important 6 weeks of development.

Why is Playing Multiple Sports So Beneficial?

We already mentioned that sports can help develop self-esteem, socialization, and work ethic. Physically it will improve strength, coordination, power, and adaptability. As previously mentioned, playing one sport year around at such a young age exposes kids to overuse and repetitive injuries at a high rate.

When kids play multiple sports over the course of multiple season it varies the type of stress on the body. Football, basketball, and baseball all have very different demands in sport. As such the strain and wear pattern on the body is different. It’s the same reason you rotate the tires on your car. Change the wear pattern and you increase the likelihood of staying healthy.

How Can Playing Multiple Sports Increase a Kid’s Athleticism?

A study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that physical fitness and gross motor movements were improved in boys aged 6-12 when they played multiple sports versus just one sport2.

88% of college athletes participated in more than one sport as a child. -Dr. Greg Schaible

Similarly, according to a study in The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, 88% of college athletes participated in more than one sport as a child3. Playing multiple sports exposes the athlete to different kinds of skills, movement patterns, coordination, and dynamic power development. It’s been found that kids who play multiple sports have a larger athletic base of skill to draw from. This means that they have the ability to pick up and learn skills, techniques, tricks, etc much faster than their one sport counterpart.

The problem with playing just one sport is we immediately switch from a youth development model to an elite athlete development model. While it sounds cool, this is a major problem as the physical needs of youth athletes are totally different than elite athletes.

Even high level athletes (Collegiate Division I) have different needs than elite athletes (All-Pro/Olympic caliber). To put this in perspective it’s similar to teaching calculus to a student before they can even do basic addition. The knowledge base is completely different and as a result your, conversations will change drastically. Elite and high level athletes have already developed foundation levels of strength and coordination. Their body has matured enough to withstand a prolonged season and repetitive strain.

With that being said, most elite and high level athletes still find time to recover throughout the year in some way shape or form because they know the negative effects overtraining and overuse have on the body.

Furthermore, they understand that their body will only have a limited window of sustainability when performing at a high level at such a high frequency. It’s why athletes retire. Playing at a high level day in and day out is just not sustainable forever, and especially not at a young age. This is why specialization should be avoided as late as possible. In most scenarios this will be until college or at the very earliest junior and senior year of high school. Some of this may differ depending on sport. For example gymnasts peek at a very young age, however most field and court sports peeking occurs much later, generally in mid to late 20’s (sometimes later).

Playing Multiple Sports is Beneficial To Confidence & Self-Esteem

Kids just want to have fun. Interestingly enough, when a kid is having fun they simultaneously want to get better and win. When the emphasis is placed on year around competition in a highly competitive environment the fun and joy of the game is lost.

Things have gotten so organized that kid’s don’t even know how to free play anymore. I wish I had some evidence or data on this, but if I was to guess, the amount of pick-up games or backyard ballgames being played are much lower than what they had been in generations earlier. Passion for the game starts because the game is fun. We hear stories about elite athletes all the time who retire because they have “lost the love of the game” or was “burnt out”. If this is happening to mature athletes, what are the odds it’s happening to your kids when you treat them the same?

What If My Child Only Likes Playing One Sport?

I would first answer that question with some follow up questions. Does your kid truly only want to play one sport? Or is it you, the parent that thinks they only want to play one sport? Have you asked them?

If they only enjoy or have interest in playing one sport, then there is certainly no reason they have to play multiple sports. The point being made earlier is that year around specialization in a sport at a young age can have very negative side effects with little to no benefit. So if you enjoy playing more than one sport, by all means play a variety of sports at a young age.

However, if your kid only enjoys one sport, or during their Junior or Senior year the child chooses to specialize (not the parent) then understand elite and high level athletes do not compete and play their sport year around. If a mature pro doesn’t play year around, there is no reason why your developing child should. High level completion imposes high levels of demand on the body that is not sustainable year around.

How Does Lifting Weights & Training Contribute To This?

Obviously lifting weights and training programs will impose stress on the human body. However, the purpose of an intelligently designed weight room program is to impose a demand on the body so that it adapts favorably.

The goals, volume, and intensity of this training program will vary depending on what sport season you are in (or offseason/in season if playing one sport). The goal of a training program at a young age should really focus on filling in the gaps of foundational movement and basic levels of strength that your sport or sports may miss.

Enjoying the various seasons and sports will accomplish a lot of this on its own at a very young age. When a training program is implemented correctly it will first address poor movement patterns and the ability to absorb force to make the body more adaptable to stress. It will also start to build foundation levels of strength to make the body more resilient and resistant to overuse injuries. When these foundations are established it creates higher athletic development potential and an environment for the athlete to succeed when they eventually decide to specialize later in their athletic career.