Specialization in Youth Sports
Dr. Ken Charleston PT, DPT
It has been a growing trend for youth athletes to specialize in a single sport. I believe this trend has become popularized by the notion that by funneling all energy into one set of sport specific skills will develop an elite level athlete. The hard truth is that a very small percentage of high school athletes will achieve collegiate level athletics and an even smaller number of athletes will ever play at the professional level. There is also growing evidence that suggests single sport specialization leads to more negative outcomes than it does positive. Athletes that participate in one sport only are at an increased risk for overuse injuries, psychological stress and burnout.
Of course there are several other factors that contribute to injury risk in athletes, however the most important risk factor was exposure. Single sport athletes are at an increased risk for overuse injuries such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared multi-sport counterparts.
Psychological stress and burnout should also be of concern. Single sport athletes may experience dropout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment. Youth athletes that specialized too early also show increased rates of physical inactivity as an adult.
My recommendation to youth athletes is to participate in multiple sports throughout the year. Injuries can happen in any sport, however, by shifting from single sport focus to adopting other athletic endeavors, the athlete is at a reduced risk for developing overuse type injuries. By participating in a single sport year round, you may be missing out on other athletic experiences in which you enjoy. There is a time and a place for specialization, however this should be reserved for athletes after puberty and when at higher levels of competition. Participate in your favorite sport, but explore others as well. Become a better overall mover and athlete in the process.