The last two decades have seen a remarkable rise in youth sports participation. With this increase in participation we have seen an increase in early sports specialization, often with year-round participation and exclusion of all other sports. The factors which lead to early single sport year-round training derive from parents, coaches and young athletes who want an edge in competition, or with a label of an “elite” athlete at a young age, who wish to pursue scholarship or future professional status.
The irony is, that there is very little data to support this strategy for most sports. In fact, the vast majority of adult elite athletes excelled in a sport other than their chosen profession when they were young. In addition, most data suggest that early sport specialization does not lead to a competitive advantage over athletes who participate in multiple sports, but instead can lead to overuse injuries and burnout or even complete withdrawal. In the 2016, the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine (AOSSM) formed a think tank of leading sports specialists to examine the effect of early sports specialization. In their consensus statement, they concluded that for most sports, there is no evidence that young athletes will benefit from early sports specialization and that such early focus leads to burnout and overuse injuries. They concluded that “Early sports specialization, or early single-sport specialization, is believed to be potentially damaging to the long-term physical and mental health of athletes and has not been validated as a requirement for competitive success in sport.” The full text of their consensus statement with sports-specific recommendations can be found here.
A more effective strategy of providing our young athletes the opportunity to truly excel in a particular sport is to encourage participation in other sports at some point in a 12 month cycle. Not only will this develop skills which are transferable from one sport to another (track and field abilities will help on the football or soccer field), but also help to develop the psychological talents of concentration and mental toughness that are important to truly excel. In contrast, early single sport specialization has been associated with negative psychological factors of social isolation, mood disturbances and high perceived stress and anxiety.
Winslow Alford, MD